A bill that would have expanded veterans courts throughout greater Minnesota died in the Legislature this week, upsetting veterans organizations that believe this legislation has become a "political pawn" in the run-up to the election.

The Veterans Restorative Justice Act, which had bipartisan support and unanimously passed the Minnesota Senate, did not come to a vote in the Minnesota House. House Democrats refused to pass the bill after House Republicans added amendments to the Senate bill.

"We see what really happened here," said Robert Hart of Stillwater, the legislative chairman for the Minnesota American Legion. "The [Republican] House minority decided to use it as a means to bash the [Democratic] majority prior to an election. And the House majority failed on its promise to us to pass it because leadership became scared.

"We expect more from both parties when it comes to taking care of combat veterans dealing with trauma … In the end, both sides look horrible."

The goal of the expansion of veterans courts throughout the state is to keep veterans who have committed lower-level criminal offenses out of prison.

Veterans' advocates believe the bill was in line with other state criminal justice statutes that empower judges to make the best choices in individual cases.

However, House Republicans added amendments to the bill that passed the Minnesota Senate 67-0. Republicans said they added these amendments to protect women and children from a potential abuser.

"Those reasons are unfounded," said Tommy Johnson, a veterans' advocate with the VFW Post in Hopkins. "They're trying to put Democrats between a rock and a hard place: Do you protect your members from campaign literature on amendments that simply are not true, or do you keep your promise to the veterans? We think you keep your promise to the veterans and let everyone know what we know — that the amendments are not in good faith."

The bipartisan bill, which would create alternative sentencing options for veterans with service-connected mental health conditions who commit lower-level crimes, had support from a number of national veterans organizations.

In 2019, 6% of offenders incarcerated in a Minnesota correctional facility self-reported that they were veterans.

Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, chairman of the House Veterans and Military Affairs committee, said he is confident the bill will pass either during a special session later this year or during the 2021 legislative session. Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, a military veteran, has also said he plans to support the bill in 2021.

"We had the opportunity to come together — as Democrats and Republicans — to help our military veterans who have admirably served our country but who have made mistakes during rough patches after returning home," said Ecklund, a Marine Corps veteran. "The advocates who worked on this bill made it clear: They want us to pass a clean bill, and I feel that's what we owe them. Our veterans don't deserve this."

Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647