Minnesota legislators clashed sharply on Friday as top Republicans rejected much of a sweeping DFL package of police reforms brought in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.
The opening hours of a special session put their contrasting agendas on full display, with Senate Republicans pushing instead to end the state of emergency that allowed Gov. Tim Walz to close bars, restaurants and schools to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
As expected, Walz formally extended those emergency powers Friday for another 30 days, triggering the special session that brought lawmakers back to the State Capitol.
The GOP-led Senate immediately voted to end Walz’s peacetime emergency, calling for more legislative oversight over the pandemic. But the DFL-controlled House blocked the move, assuring that the governor’s emergency powers can run into July. The House and Senate also disagree on how long the special session should last: Senate Republicans vowed to gavel out again and return to their districts in one week, while House Democrats accused them of trying to “cut and run on Minnesotans” by rushing important debates on police accountability.
“To say we’re going to come in, we’re going to charge ahead, we’re going to get these things done without having listened to the community because we’re in some big hurry because we’re in a special session, that isn’t the approach to take,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “The approach to take is to truly listen and to take the time it needs. Minnesotans pay us all year round. It may not be convenient to come to work in June, but the work is in front of us.”
Democrats also argued that it is inconsistent for Republicans to adjourn while also pressing for more legislative oversight over the governor’s actions.
“If we are going to end the emergency order, then we’ve got to do the work,” said Sen. Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville.
But Republicans made clear that their top priority is restoring a state economy devastated by the extended closures mandated under Walz’s peacetime emergency powers to battle COVID-19.
“That’s the problem with emergency powers; he gets to decide who wins and who loses,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “There’s a whole lot of people in Minnesota who are on the losing side who are very frustrated.”
Gazelka suggested that lawmakers could continue to work on race and police issues even after the special session ends. Another move by Walz to extend the state of emergency would trigger yet another special session in July.
“Minnesota has the opportunity to lead the way for the whole nation for reconciliation of the races and some of the problems we’re addressing,” Gazelka said. “Let’s begin here.”
Even as Minnesota and other states seek to respond to the outcry over Floyd’s death, Congress is working on its own set of police reforms, including a package by Senate Republicans aimed at winning the approval of President Donald Trump, a political ally of Minneapolis Police Federation President Lt. Bob Kroll.
There were some signs of agreement in St. Paul on Friday. The House and Senate struck a deal on a $62 million package of grants for small businesses impacted by the pandemic. The funding would be equally divided between businesses in the metro area and greater Minnesota. Both sides also say they want to pass a more than $1 billion public works bonding bill that failed during the regular session that ended in May. Some state borrowing could help businesses in St. Paul and Minneapolis damaged by days of riots and looting in response to Floyd’s death.
The pandemic became the focus of lawmakers’ work during the regular legislative session, but Floyd’s death hung heaviest over the Capitol on Friday. Members, spaced out for social distancing on the House floor, opened the session by pausing for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin held his knee to Floyd’s neck before Floyd took his last breath.
Outside on the Capitol steps, civil rights activists pushing for police reform demanded action from legislators before they adjourn.
“We need legislators on both sides of the aisle to step up to the plate. The world is watching what is happening here in Minnesota,” said civil rights attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong. “The sad reality is if legislators had taken the voices of communities of color seriously with regard to the crisis in policing, we wouldn’t be in this place that we’re in right now.”
House Democrats have scheduled a hearing Saturday to review a police reform package largely developed by members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus and a task force led by state Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is prosecuting Chauvin and three other officers implicated in Floyd’s death.
The DFL package, laid out by Walz on Thursday, would reform use-of-force standards, increase oversight of police discipline and encourage community-based alternatives to traditional law enforcement. They also include proposals to ban police chokeholds and “warrior style” police training, while giving the state’s attorney general authority over all deadly force cases involving police officers.
On Friday, Senate Republicans signaled support for some of those measures, including less controversial moves like banning chokeholds, which are already limited by most Minnesota police departments. But they voiced opposition to many other DFL proposals, including putting the attorney general in charge of prosecuting officer-involved killings.
One GOP-backed initiative would abolish or limit mediation rights for police officers fired for wrongdoing. But that measure faces opposition from some DFL-leaning public employee unions.
“I really want the many police officers throughout the state to know that we appreciate the effort that you do day in and day out,” Gazelka said. “There always must be a few bad apples that must be plucked out, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.