Minnesota state lawmakers will get another chance at passing police accountability measures into law next week, with Gov. Tim Walz planning to call a special legislative session for the second time this summer.
Walz said Tuesday he is optimistic that lawmakers can strike a deal on both a public works spending package and on police reforms in the wake of the May death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
But the politics remain tricky. A few hours after Walz revealed his plan to call a special session this coming Monday, members of the Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus — joined at a statehouse news conference by Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar — said that GOP legislative leaders have not been communicating with them about police accountability proposals.
“Until we get that meaningful dialogue, I’m not sure how we can get things done,” said Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis.
A special session last month ended in acrimony as Democrats who control the House and the Republican-led Senate hit an impasse over a series of measures meant to increase police accountability in response to Floyd’s killing.
“The Senate GOP supports police reforms like banning chokeholds and de-escalation training. However, we won’t support any DFL ‘reforms’ that defund or dismantle the police,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, tweeted on Tuesday in response to the DFL claims.
House Democrats continue to push for a sweeping package of changes to boost community-led alternatives to policing, ban warrior-style training for officers and raise the threshold for using deadly force from “apparent” to “imminent” threats to officers and others.
As noted by Gazelka, Republicans supported a handful of those measures, including raising training standards and requiring officers to intervene if colleagues use excessive force. But Democrats said they didn’t go far enough.
Democrats have repeatedly insisted their package does not defund or dismantle police departments. But Gazelka said a DFL proposal to spend $15 million on policing alternatives could be an opening to take the state in the direction of defunding.
Senators have focused on “lawlessness events and governmental responses” in a series of informational hearings. They have discussions scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday on Capitol security and the state’s role in responding to riots that damaged many businesses.
People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus members said Tuesday that Republicans are valuing damaged property over people’s lives. Omar, who was one of the founders of the POCI Caucus when she was a state legislator, said action is needed at both the state and federal levels. She criticized President Donald Trump and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not acting on a criminal justice and police accountability measure passed by the U.S. House.
“I guess the president would rather attack the people who are protesting than actually address the issues that people are out here protesting for. And as my colleagues here will tell you, we are seeing the same here in Minnesota,” Omar said.
At the State Capitol, a special session is automatic if Walz extends his emergency peacetime powers for another 30 days. He said he intends to do that next week. Walz has been employing those powers to manage the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s pretty evident that we will be going into a special session, probably next Monday,” Walz said Tuesday.
The other major legislation still subject to negotiations between Democrats and Republicans is the borrowing package for public construction projects, called the bonding bill. Lawmakers from both parties agree it would bring the state a needed economic boost but at the same time have been tying its passage to the fate of other legislative priorities.
Hayden and Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, both said Tuesday they would support a bonding bill only if police reforms passed. And House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has said he wants an end to Walz’s emergency powers to be part of a bonding deal.
“Obviously we can’t walk away without doing some police reforms in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and we also have bonding that is part of the economy that is going to be really important, and some supplemental issues that need to be addressed,” Walz said. “I think for Minnesotans, they see a hyperpartisan environment, I can tell you this: the legislative session is working, there is a commitment to try and get it done.”
Republican Sen. Dave Senjem said he’s spent six days in private negotiations trying to reconcile separate bonding bills previously passed by the House and Senate. Lawmakers are debating the final pieces, which include housing and transportation funds in a package that will likely hit $1.35 billion, he said.
“I’m feeling that we’re getting close, and we’ll be able to close up the 5 percent of this bill soon and I anticipate having it ready to go next week,” Senjem said. “At this point, there’s no reason to think that there won’t be a bonding bill.”