The Minnesota House voted Monday to increase legal penalties for protesters who block freeways and to lease a privately owned prison in western Minnesota.
Those two controversial, Republican-backed provisions were both part of a sweeping, $2.3 billion package of public safety spending and policy changes. The House passed the bill Monday evening 94-37 after hours of contentious debate that largely centered on the freeway protest crackdown, which had Republicans and DFLers sparring over issues of free speech and race.
In recent years, a series of large-scale demonstrations on Twin Cities freeways — including several following the police shooting of Philando Castile — blocked traffic, sometimes for hours. Blocking transit is already illegal in Minnesota, but the bill would make it a gross misdemeanor to block highways or light rail lines, punishable by up to a year in jail.
Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, argued that freeway protests are a danger to the community. Zerwas, who sponsored the freeway protest provision, said he heard from a constituent who missed an important medical appointment due to a highway shutdown. Other Republicans said these types of protests could hinder ambulances and endanger police officers. “Your First Amendment rights do not extend to the center lane of I-94,” Zerwas said.
DFL lawmakers cast the bill as a way to upend political speech under the guise of public safety and in lieu of addressing larger racial and economic disparities in Minnesota. Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, moved unsuccessfully to strike the protest provision. “The message you are sending to the people of Minnesota is that it is more important for you to be free than it is for others,” said Becker-Finn, referencing protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. “That is privilege, and that is injustice.”
The measure also directs the state to lease Prairie Correctional Facility, a now-empty, privately owned prison in Appleton, Minn. Proponents say the 1,600-bed facility would help solve overcrowding in the state’s corrections system, and would help the down economy in the western Minnesota region.
Critics say the prison is not needed, and that Minnesota should focus on lowering its incarcerated population rather than spending more on prisons.
In its entirety, the measure would allocate $2.3 billion for Minnesota courts, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Public Safety and other related efforts in the next two years.
Other provisions include expanding mental health services in Minnesota prisons and reforming the state’s use of solitary confinement in its prisons. It would no longer allow the practice of allowing prisoners to be discharged directly from seclusion, and mandates more transparency around who goes to solitary and for how long.
The state Senate has already passed its own public safety bill. House and Senate lawmakers will now collaborate on a final version to send to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who has expressed concern over some of the more controversial provisions, including the crackdown on freeway protests and the Appleton prison.