Police accountability bills stall in Minnesota Legislature

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A special session of the Minnesota Legislature appeared to be in a stalemate Friday with both parties deeply divided on how far lawmakers should go toward remaking policing in the state where George Floyd was killed.

The Democratic-controlled House early Friday passed an extensive package of police accountability measures wrapped into one bill. It includes elements of five more modest policing bills that the Republican-controlled Senate passed earlier in the week but would make bigger changes than what Senate Republicans have said they’ll accept.

Late Friday night, Senate Republicans made a new offer to House DFL leaders on police accountability.

"Senate Republicans decided to get the ball rolling and make one final offer related to criminal justice reform and police accountability," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka told reporters in the Capitol rotunda. "We added one final piece that a number of people said we needed in criminal justice reform and police accountability and that was teeth in what happens in a case where an officer is that bad apple. So we have language that changes arbitration."

Arbitration has become a focus of some because many police officers who get fired for misconduct get their jobs back through mediation with an arbitrator. Senate Democrats says the Republican offer doesn’t go far enough.

"Minor changes can’t fix major problems," said DFL Sen. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis.

Earlier Friday evening Governor Tim Walz said police accountability did appear to be the major sticking point to broader agreement on other issues in the special session.

"I think right now it’s around the police accountability piece," Walz told reporters. "Republicans put several things on the table and in their mind they were moving a long ways and I characterized them as ‘weak sauce’ or something. That was not my intention to diminish them. I just thought those were easy lifts from my perspective and I wanted them to take a couple more steps on the harder lifts."

As lawmakers huddled behind closed doors, or met on the floors to pass less-contentious legislation, around 400 demonstrators held a Juneteenth rally outside the Capitol, where they chanted Floyd’s name and called for lawmakers to pass the House bill. DFL House leaders urged Republicans to act.

Police accountability act passes in Minnesota House, heads to Senate

“We have to do something on police accountability and reform," Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, told reporters. "The tragic murder of George Floyd on May 25th changed the entire legislative agenda. There is no way for us to look away from this injustice, and to not do the work that thousands of Minnesotans and millions of people around the world are demanding that governments take up.”

Walz on Thursday challenged lawmakers to put a police accountability bill on his desk in time to sign on Juneteenth, a day that has long commemorated the emancipation of enslaved Blacks but turned this year into one of protest against police brutality and racism following the killing of Floyd, an African American who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee into his neck for several minutes.

“Today as people across the state and nation recognize and observe Juneteenth, Senate Republicans are sending a loud message by choosing to pack up and leave before we’ve finished the work that Minnesotans are expecting us to do," Democratic Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, of Woodbury, told reporters. "Black, Indigenous and people of color have spent years fighting for justice. We can spend a little more than a week doing the same.”

Walz, who has also called for making Juneteenth a state holiday, spoke Friday with musician Pharrell Williams, who tweeted that he’s asking every governor to make it a paid holiday for state employees, and that he spoke with a number of governors Friday. “Thank you for fighting for this issue. #Juneteenth is an important part of our history, and it should be recognized and remembered by our entire state each year,” Walz wrote as he retweeted Williams’ thanks.

The two parties also remained divided on the main unfinished business of the 2020 regular session, a public construction borrowing package known as a bonding bill, which could potentially include money for rebuilding neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul where businesses were damaged and destroyed in the unrest that followed Floyd’s killing. Other unresolved issues included a potential tax break that could benefit businesses seeking to rebuild, and how to allocate federal coronavirus relief money to local governments from the $2.1 billion the state received under the CARES Act.

If there is no agreement on the big issues, lawmakers are likely to get another chance in late June or mid-July. Assuming Walz intends to issue another 30-day extension of the emergency powers he’s been using to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s legally required to call another special session for July 12 to let lawmakers object. That’s why he called this special session. House Democrats blocked a Senate GOP attempt last week to remove the governor’s emergency authority.