The top Republican in the Minnesota Legislature said Friday that lawmakers meeting in a special session next week should not act too quickly on reforms in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody.
“I do believe more work can be done. But to actually expect that to be done in the next week is not how the legislative bodies work,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “We meet in committees and we fully vet issues to make sure we get it right. Because it’s not just for now, this is for a generation to come.”
Gazelka’s comments follow calls by Gov. Tim Walz and DFL leaders pressing for swift action on measures to curb police abuses. Floyd died on Memorial Day after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest.
Gazelka’s suggestion of a drawn-out legislative response is “completely dismissive of the urgency to protect the black community” and shows why large-scale criminal justice legislation hasn’t happened in the past, Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said in a statement Friday.
Walz said Wednesday that legislators’ commitment to police reforms will be on display next week when they convene in St. Paul for a special session triggered by an extension of Walz’s emergency powers to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “I will guarantee you, there will be bills put on the floor and put to a vote. Yes or no. Put your money where your mouth is and send it forward,” Walz said.
Lawmakers also are expected to take up a bonding bill to fund major infrastructure projects around the state. Minneapolis and St. Paul are seeking state money to help rebuild from the destruction of the violent protests that followed Floyd’s death.
House Republicans blocked a $2 billion bonding bill at the end of the regular session last month in an effort to end Walz’s emergency powers. Now a group of DFL legislators has threatened to withhold their votes as well unless they gain significant changes to law enforcement practices.
Earlier this week, members of the Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus and DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman suggested about two dozen policy changes, including increasing oversight of officer licensure and training, expanding de-escalation training, creating incentives for officers to live in the communities where they work, and moving prosecution of officer-involved deaths to the Attorney General’s Office — as has been done in Floyd’s case.
Many of the DFL proposals align with recommendations released in February by a state working group led by state Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and Attorney General Keith Ellison focused on reducing police-involved deadly force encounters.
The governor said Friday that the police reform measures he wants are already in place elsewhere in the country. He encouraged protesters to keep the pressure on politicians as they return to St. Paul next Friday. “You build Capitols with big front yards not to admire them but to fill them with citizens,” he said.
Some city officials and activists have called for dismantling the current Minneapolis Police Department and starting over with a newly constituted law enforcement service. Gazelka said abolishing the police would be “a huge mistake.”
Gazelka has not outlined any reform proposals of his own but said “Minnesota needs to lead the nation in race reconciliation.”
One idea that has gained attention from police critics is a proposal by state Rep. Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington, that would eliminate the state law that mandates binding arbitration for terminated public employees, including police officers. Garofalo argues that arbitration makes it harder to fire “bad apples,” but the measure is likely to be opposed by public employee unions that support DFLers.
Gazelka said he wants to focus on the unfinished business of the regular session that ended last month, including the bonding bill, tax relief and grants to small businesses. DFL leaders are expected to press again for more aid for people struggling from the economic toll of the pandemic.
Those debates will play out against the continuing partisan tensions over Walz’s emergency powers, which Republicans say are no longer needed. But it would take votes in both chambers to reject another 30-day extension, and the DFL controls the lower house.
It’s up to the Legislature, not the governor, to decide when the special session adjourns. But with police reform proposals and spending debates on the table, Walz said legislators’ work will continue for a while.
“I think that potential is there [for this to become a long special session],” Walz said. “In this moment — what we know needs to get done — I can’t imagine going before we get work done.”