A Minnesota House panel signed off on clarifying that a long-standing provision that would give lawmakers immunity from arrest during the legislative session is not the equivalent of a “Get out of jail free” card.
For the second year in a row, lawmakers are considering rewording the provision, which has been the source of debate and controversy at the Capitol because some believe it could extend to drunken driving. A bill to do away with its privilege cleared the Minnesota House last year, but the Senate has did not address the issue, and is unlikely to do so again this year.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee approved the bill, sending it to the House floor. But even if it passes, its sponsor, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, acknowledged that Senate Judiciary Chair Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, was reluctant to take up a measure he viewed as redundant. Winkler said his bill’s likely only shot at landing on the Senate floor is in the form of an amendment to another bill.
“I think the issue is when it comes up for a vote, it’s challenging for legislators to vote against this for pretty obvious reasons,” Winkler said. “So the path is to get some kind of vote in the Senate so they have a choice between moving this forward and being on public record against this.”
Latz confirmed Wednesday that he has no intention of taking up the bill, and said the term “legislative immunity” is a misnomer.
“There is no legislative immunity for criminal conduct under current law, thus there is no legal or statutory problem to solve,” he said. “There is also no confusion by anyone: cops know, prosecutors know, legislators know there is no immunity.”
Latz pointed out Former Secretary of State Mark Ritchie stopped printing the cards last summer, and his successor, Steve Simon, also will no longer print the cards. The current cards expired in January.
“There are no actual incidents in modern times of anyone in Minnesota trying to use this clause to get out of anything,” Latz said. “Thus, there is no actual problem to solve. There is nothing of substance for the Legislature to do here.”
Last year, Latz, asked Attorney General Lori Swanson to clarify what the law means. Swanson replied that as it applies to modern cases, would not get legislators out of an arrest for DWI or any other crime. However, she said that clarifying the statute would be “helpful and beneficial.”
Latz was doubtful, writing last year that “I’m not convinced putting something in law twice will actually resolve any misunderstanding of current law,”
The card given to legislators says that under Article 4, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution, lawmakers “in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, shall be privileged from arrest” while the Legislature is in session. Political science students at Concordia University St. Paul have reprised efforts to make it clear that such immunity does not extend to drunken driving or other crimes.
The provision was authored to prevent the detention of lawmakers in order to keep them from voting. Winkler’s bill would direct police who arrest lawmakers for drunken driving to bring them to their respective bodies without delay if their presence is necessary.
Before the Public Safety Committee unanimously approved the bill, Public Safety Chair Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said that regardless of whether anyone is arrested, it’s important to show the public that lawmakers should be held accountable.
“I think it stinks just to have this language, it’s embarrassing and we should get rid of it,” He said.
“Hopefully,” Cornish added, “They have the courage in the Senate to take this up.”
Photo: Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, and Concordia College students present the bill to the House Public Safety Committee.
The Senate Education Committee on Thursday spent nearly three hours debating two measures, one already approved by the GOP-led House, that would require school districts consider performance, not only seniority, when forced to lay off teachers because of budget cuts.
Over the course of the debate, parents, school board members, superintendents and even a neuroscience expert brought in by Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, gave lively testimony on the two pieces of legislation.
Education Minnesota, which represents 70,000 teachers in the state, has vigorously opposed the legislation, arguing that it would undermine a recently implemented teacher evaluation law. The union's chief criticism is that it would kill collaboration among teachers and instead pit them against one another since peer reviews are a component of teacher evaluation requirements.
Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, sponsor of one the bills, is the only DFL legislator this session to support revising seniority rules for teachers, putting her at odds with most of the DFL party, which has argued against the proposed legislation.
Bonoff said she rejected that notion and said that teachers are more professional than that. She argued that most of school districts' teacher evaluations plans were designed with teacher input.
"This is not about keeping young people over old people," Bonoff said. It's about "serving students to the best of our ability...this issue is a matter of civil rights."
Josh Davis, a researcher with the NeuroLeadership Institute based in New York, testified that evaluation systems with rankings hurt morale and that teachers with low ratings would be distracted from their jobs.
"When there's any kind of threat [low evaluation rating] to our status... it's very hard to concentrate," he told the committee.
After debate ended, Senate Education Committee Chair Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said the bills would be laid over for possible inclusion in an omnibus education bill. Bonoff said she hopes to include the legislation in final negotiations toward the end of the legislative session.
For more testimony from this morning's hearing, check out the Star Tribune's live blog from the hearing here.
House File 2, which passed the lower legislative chamber on a 70-63 vote last week, would also would also make it easier for out-of-state teachers to become licensed in Minnesota, a process critics say is currently too cumbersome and requires the help of a lawyer to navigate.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, would require the state’s Board of Teaching to allow educators from neighboring states to transfer their license to Minnesota. The measure's sponsor in the House was Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie.
Top leaders in the Minnesota House and Senate have proposed creating a legislative budget office to provide legislators "nonpartisan, accurate, and timely information on the fiscal impact of proposed legislation."
The bills, introduced Monday, come after Republicans late last week questioned a report issued just hours ahead of a floor vote on a GOP-sponsored bill that would revise teacher seniority rules that guide layoffs.
The report, known as a fiscal note, was prepared by the Department of Education and approved by the Minnesota Management and Budget Office (MMB).
Under the current structure, fiscal notes are prepared by agencies who would be affected by proposed legislation. It is then approved by MMB. Lawmakers from both parties have in the past questioned analysis, raising questions of partisanship.
It would require that state departments and agencies, as well as the state Supreme Court, provide information to the proposed Legislative Budget Office.
Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol agreed Friday that Minnesota's projected $1.9 billion budget surplus is great news for the state, but there was considerably less agreement on what to do with it.
"Today is good news for Minnesotans," said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, echoing comments by Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL legislative leaders.
But, where Dayton and DFL allies suggested greater spending on areas like education and transportation, the GOP's emphasis was as-yet-unspecified tax relief -- and the argument that Dayton now should jettison his proposal to raise state taxes on gasoline for transportation projects.
"I think this surplus means Democrats can stop talking about a gas tax in St. Paul," Daudt said. That's after Dayton said just a few minutes earlier that he intended to proceed with that proposal, which involves a new, 6-percent-per- gallon tax on gas at the wholesale level. Daudt said a portion of the surplus should be spent directly on rebuilding roads and bridges.
Daudt was elusive about what kind of tax relief Republicans might pursue. But he suggested at least $900 million, or about half the new surplus figure, should be returned to taxpayers. Whether that might come in the form of wide-reaching relief, like an income or sales tax cut or rebate, or more targeted relief through tax credits or carve-outs to smaller subsets of taxpayers, he wouldn't say.
"Anything is on the table," Daudt said.
Various Republican lawmakers have already introduced bills tending toward the latter approach, with tax relief for businesses meant to promote new job creation, tax relief for farmers and other proposals.
Still, it was clear Republicans have their eyes on spending some portion of the surplus. Besides roads and bridges, Daudt and other GOP leaders expressed an interest in boosting state payments to nursing homes and spending more on schools, among other possible priorities.
"We will be proposing spending but it will be spending targeted at results," said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
As new spending requests from interest groups flooded in via press release, Democratic legislative leaders said the new money available should be focused toward programs that aid working families.
"We hope to hear the priorities of communities across the state," said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis.
(This post has been updated)
The issue that already divided Democrats at Minnesota's Capitol -- Gov. Mark Dayton's pay raises for his cabinet -- split Republicans on Thursday too, with the Senate GOP strongly against the deal struck between Dayton and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt to resolve the dispute.
The Senate narrowly approved the compromise Thursday, in a 35-29 vote that saw the chamber's Republicans in uniform opposition. A few hours later the House approved the bill much more widely, 108-20, with almost no debate.
The bill now heads to Dayton, who said he would sign it.
The lively Senate debate put majority Democrats in the position of defending Dayton and Daudt's deal, which put Dayton's $900,000 in pay raises to 30 state commissioners on hold and restores legislative oversight of future salary hikes, but gives Dayton a one-day window on July 1 to restore the raises.
"We are not stopping these increases. These increases will still go into effect," said Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville. Dayton would not say earlier Thursday whether he intends to restore the raises.
Dayton and Daudt negotiated the deal after Dayton's public falling-out with Senate DFL Leader Tom Bakk over the issue. Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, stressed that point repeatedly as a succession of Republicans bashed the compromise, and suggested it would be a political liability for Democrats in 2016.
Minnesota Action Network, a right-leaning political group founded by former Sen. Norm Coleman, already circulated campaign-style literature targeting DFL Sen. Melisa Franzen of Edina over the pay raise issue. She's a likely target of Republicans hoping to pick up swing district seats in 2016.
But the support from most House Republicans could defang it as a winning political issue for Republicans. "I want to thank Speaker Daudt personally. He has said we're not going to politicize these issues of commissioner pay for the rest of the session," said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
Few DFL senators spoke in favor of the raises, though Cohen called them defensible. "State government has lost significant folks of high competence and high quality," he said.
The pay issue got attached to a stopgap spending bill that includes about $16 million in emergency money for a handful of state agencies and operations.