A 44-year-old Minnesota law preventing prosecution of rape cases where the victim is married or cohabitating with their alleged assailant moved a step closer toward repeal on Tuesday with the passage of a measure that included multiple changes to the state's criminal sexual conduct laws.

The repeal is part of a package that passed the Senate last session before being folded into a larger omnibus spending bill that then-Gov. Mark Dayton later vetoed. On Tuesday, with little discussion, the bill again advanced out of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Policy and Finance committee, which sent it along to the Finance committee.

Minnesota's "voluntary relationships" exception dates back to 1975 and holds that a person cannot be convicted of criminal sexual conduct if they and the complainant are "cohabitating in an ongoing voluntary sexual relationship" or if they are legally married at the time of the alleged conduct.

The law allowed for prosecution in cases where the couple was living apart and one of the two filed for legal separation or dissolution of the marriage, and the exception only applied to rape cases while not preventing prosecution of other crimes committed by one legal spouse against the other.

The bill passed on Tuesday was not in direct response to a recent Star Tribune series into law enforcement's uneven response to rape investigations. Yet repeal of the voluntary relationships statute was included among 11 legislative recommendations made last month by a state Attorney General task force created following the investigation.

The bill would also undo an exemption to the state's definition of "sexual contact," which currently does not outlaw groping, or "intentional touching of the clothing covering the buttocks." The new bill would strike that exemption, making it a fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct crime that would be punishable by up to 1 year in prison, a $3,000 fine or both in cases of a first offense.

The proposed legislation also increases penalties in certain child pornography cases and in cases where people secretly record videos of minors with sexual intent. Judges would also be required to justify in writing and on the record any decision to stay adjudication in sex crimes cases.

On Tuesday, the Senate committee's chair, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, described the bill as "much needed" and reflective of "more of a bipartisan spirit" on trying to shore up sex crime laws.

"I think it is important to notice that this type of sex offense law should be a bipartisan focus — especially when it deals with children," Limmer said.

Lindsay Brice, interim staff attorney for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told Tuesday's committee that the bill contained "identical language" that the coalition supported last year and included several items that remained on its 2019 legislative agenda.

Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755 Twitter: @smontemayor