Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz laid out a wide-ranging overhaul of law enforcement Thursday as lawmakers return to the State Capitol for a special session shadowed by the memory of George Floyd, a black man who died in the hands of Minneapolis police.
Walz, accompanied by DFL leaders, challenged the Legislature to meet calls for action sparked by his death and the protests in Minnesota and across the nation. The DFL plan would reform use-of-force standards, increase oversight of police discipline and encourage community-based alternatives to traditional law enforcement.
But addressing racial inequities in policing will be only a part of the complex and fast-paced work of the Legislature that convenes Friday, as lawmakers forge ahead on a list of unfinished business left behind when they wrapped up the regular session in May.
Topping the list is a massive public works borrowing bill that fell apart amid partisan sniping over Walz’s emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Walz’s declaration of another 30-day extension of those powers — the act which triggered the special session — remains a potential roadblock as lawmakers in both parties seek to attach conditions to a public works bonding package expected to top $1 billion.
Lawmakers also need to agree on distributing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance to local units of government from the CARES Act, one of the last major initiatives of Congress before Floyd’s death turned the nation’s attention from the pandemic to issues of race and police behavior.
Legislators expect to pass a tax relief measure and grants to help businesses recover from the shutdowns prompted by the pandemic. And there are discussions about helping Minneapolis and St. Paul recover from the damage wrought by several days of violent protests following Floyd’s death.
While the pandemic dominated the closing days of the regular session, the mood of the state and the nation has changed palpably since Floyd’s death on Memorial Day, with swelling demand for state leaders to reform police practices with regard to people of color.
“This call to a special session is not a call just from me. It’s that primal scream you heard from people on the streets demanding justice, demanding it now and demanding us step into this moment,” Walz said Wednesday as he announced the new session.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have proposed changes, though it is unclear how much common ground may emerge. Amid a fast-changing political landscape, legislative leaders say they could pass some changes in the next week or two, and they plan to dive into more in-depth measures after that.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said last week that he thought criminal justice changes need to be vetted and should not be made too quickly. But this week he said he has had many conversations on the topic and changed his mind.
He said he now believes Republicans could agree to ban chokeholds, eliminate binding arbitration for public employees, put the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in charge of investigating use-of-force cases and make it the duty of officers to intervene and report unauthorized use of force.
There seems to be bipartisan support for some of those proposals, though a couple of public employee unions that largely support Democrats have said they oppose ending binding arbitration.
Walz and a group of DFL leaders laid out more details on their police accountability and reform plans Thursday, saying the world is watching and legislators need to capitalize on the moment to change state laws. Some of their key measures would change the standards for use of deadly force, mandate more training, enhance the power of the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board and make the board more diverse. The plan would specifically ban “warrior style” police training backed by the Minneapolis police union.
House Republicans criticized aspects of the plan Thursday for not eliminating binding arbitration and for adding felon voting rights into the mix.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, called felon voting rights a key part of the DFL plan. “Giving folks the ability to vote is the most core thing we could possibly do right now to give folks a voice in what their government is doing and how we move forward,” she said.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said legislators are gathering community input to identify short-, medium- and long-term priorities. In all, the Democratic-controlled House plans to introduce about 20 bills related to criminal justice reform.
DFL Rep. Carlos Mariani, chairman of the House public safety and criminal justice reform committee, believes increasing POST Board diversity is one of the changes that could happen quickly. He said the office of Attorney General Keith Ellison could quickly be made the default organization to prosecute police-involved deaths, instead of county attorney offices.
Gazelka said county attorneys have raised concerns with that, and he opposes the idea. Gazelka also said he opposes any effort to defund police, an idea raised by Black Lives Matter activists and a majority of Minneapolis City Council members.
It remains unclear whether the push for police reform will be tied politically to other bills. The infrastructure bonding bill requires a supermajority to pass, making it one of the few points of leverage for the minority party in each legislative chamber. House GOP leaders sought to tie the bonding bill to an end to Walz’s emergency powers during the regular session in May.
Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said while he still opposes the extension of the powers, he is “very willing to be flexible” on a bonding bill during the special session. His caucus wants to see a borrowing package that includes important projects that would spur economic growth during the coronavirus outbreak, Daudt said. But he also said Republicans have “grave concerns about increasing our spending during a time of deficit.”
Since Floyd’s death, Sen. Jeff Hayden, the assistant DFL minority leader in the Senate, has talked about linking the bonding bill to police reform instead. “If it’s up to me, you’re not going to get our votes for a bonding bill until we pass significant law enforcement reforms,” he said.
But DFL leaders such as Hortman and Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, have not taken that hard of a line. The House’s People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, which is leading the DFL work on police reforms, is not talking about holding up bonding right now, Mariani said. He described blocking the bonding bill as pulling “a nuclear switch.”
The debate over the bonding bill also is playing out against the backdrop of a projected $2.4 billion budget deficit. Daudt said if the Legislature agrees to new spending during the special session, such as additional debt payments for a bonding bill, the costs should be offset by state budget cuts.
The special session, anticipated since May 18, has taken on new urgency since the protests after Floyd’s death. State general obligation bonding could include money for a library and career development center damaged during protests, Hortman said. But state leaders are discussing a separate appropriations bonding bill to help private businesses. The time frame to get all this work done remained unclear. Gazelka said they could finish the bills they agree on in less than a week, then other items could take all summer. But he said, “I don’t see being in session unless we agree.”
Hortman said she doesn’t think they should leave until their work is done.
Every time Walz opts to extend his emergency powers for another 30 days, he needs to call the Legislature back into session. So even if lawmakers do end the session quickly, they could be back in a month.
“I anticipate that this is going to be a summer where we’re pretty much in session,” Walz said this week.