by CHRIS ROGERS
Police reform, COVID-19 funding for local governments, and funding for construction projects across the state — the Minnesota Legislature ended its special session last Saturday without achieving many of its primary goals.
Winona-area lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voted unsuccessfully to end Governor Tim Walz’s peacetime emergency powers to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, calling the state’s forced business shutdowns unequal and overreaching. Republicans declined to support the most sweeping police-accountability measures. Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona) voted for Democratic police-reform proposals, but in an interview afterward, joined Republicans in criticizing reform advocates’ all-or-nothing approach for preventing a deal. A total of $841 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding for local governments was held up by legislative gridlock, in part because, after lawmakers had already reached a deal, DFL lawmakers tacked on extra state funding for childcare to the COVID-19 relief program.
Police-reform bills fail
In response to a statewide and global outcry over racism and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Department officers, Democrats made police reform a major focus of last week’s special session.
The Republican-led Senate proposed legislation funding deescalation training and requiring local law enforcement agencies to adopt new use-of-force policies that would ban chokeholds except when lethal force was justified, create a duty for officers to intercede when another officer uses illegal force, and create a duty for officers to report illegal use of force.
Proposals from the DFL-led House included those policies, but went much further. A DFL bill would have required all local law enforcement agencies with over 50 officers to create a local citizen oversight council to conduct public engagement and oversee police policy, budgets, training, and practices. The bill would have given local citizen oversight councils the power to investigate police misconduct and subpoena witnesses and evidence. The DFL proposal would have banned “warrior-style training,” restored voting rights to people who have been convicted of a felony and are on parole, created a state-wide board to review all deaths at the hands of police, and required the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board — Minnesota’s licensure board for police officers — to consider suspending or revoking a license for officers who are convicted of serious crimes or terminated for violating use-of-force policies.
Pelowski voted for the House DFL proposals. Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) voted against them.
Drazkowski said felon voting rights were a non-starter. More broadly, he stated, “I think most Minnesotans realize that the vast majority of our police officers do a very good job and are not abusive, but if there are one percent or less or whatever that number is, it’s that mandatory arbitration process that protects them.” Drazkowski said he could support banning chokeholds and fixing the arbitration process that protects officers from being disciplined or fired. “There’s some things that were good that we should have passed that we did not because of the more ideological left within the Democratic party,” Drazkowski said.
In an interview, Pelowski said he supported the DFL proposals because he hoped they would lead to a compromise bill. “I thought there was enough public input that we could reach a compromise, and that the House would see they are not going to get everything they want,” Pelowski said. “I think the Democrats wanted everything. You’re not going to get it,” he added.
Rep. Ruth Richardson (DFL-Mendota Heights) is a member of the the People of Color and Indigenous lawmakers’ (POCI) Caucus that spearheaded the police-reform push. She had a different take on the failed negotiations: “The status quo is killing our communities. We wanted to think with the world watching this time would be different, but here we are again at the status quo.”
While Pelowski voted for the DFL police-reform bill, in an interview on Monday, he preached a different approach to the issue: Let local governments handle it. Local governments control their police departments, he pointed out. “Let them put [police reform] in place. Let’s see how it works,” he advocated. “There’s got to be a change in arbitration, and that may take state law,” he acknowledged. However, Pelowski said of policing, “There isn’t a statewide problem.” Would leaving the issue to local governments mean some cities won’t enact needed reforms? “We haven’t had this problem in the majority of our communities,” Pelowski responded. “It has been illustrated primarily in Minneapolis and somewhat in St. Paul.” He also argued that passing sweeping police reform in one week was impractical and such bills need weeks of committee hearings to properly craft and vet them.
By contrast, Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), another POCI Caucus member, said, “It wasn’t just one bad apple that killed George Floyd, or any of the other black men killed by police officers. These murders were only possible because of structural racism and complete lack of accountability for the officers who act in a way which dismisses the value of humanity.”
In an interview, Sen. Mike Goggin (R-Red Wing) incorrectly claimed that the Democratic proposals would have defunded police departments. Some reforms are needed, but for the DFL, “It was their way or no way,” Goggin said. Most of all, police need to be part of the conversation on reform, he argued. “[Democrats] didn’t allow law enforcement to be part of it. The city of Red Wing is doing the same thing here. They’re eliminating the police department from having input on policies that they’ll be held accountable to,” Goggin stated.
“The majority of police officers are good police officers. There are some bad cops, just like any other profession, and we need to figure out a way to get the bad cops out of the profession,” Sen. Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) said in an interview. Noting the many past complaints against Derek Chauvin, the arresting officer charged with murdering George Floyd, Miller said, “He should not have been a police officer.” In the late hours of the special session, Miller stated, Senate Republicans agreed to change the police-misconduct arbitration process to make it easier to remove bad cops, but Democrats refused to remove other, controversial provisions such as voting rights for released felons. “An all-or-nothing mentality isn’t going to get very far in any issue in the legislature,” he stated. Minnesota does need to talk about police reform, but law enforcement needs to be at the table and it is going to take longer than a few days, Miller said.
Sen. Bobby Champion (DFL-Minneapolis) proposed an amendment to the Republican reform bill that would have narrowed the legal justifications for police use of lethal force. The amendment would have outlawed police use of lethal force except as a last resort to protect human life and would have eliminated current law allowing police to use lethal force to capture people suspected of felonies. Goggin and Miller voted against Champion’s proposal.
Goggin said the standard was too strict for the split-second, life-or-death decision-making police work requires. “In a split second, how do you know? You’re calling the officer guilty, and he’s got to prove his innocence,” Goggin stated.
Miller didn’t recall Champion’s amendment — one of many in a marathon special session. Asked about the substance of the proposal, he said, “I’d have to review it further before I can comment on it.”
Pelowski, GOP rebuke Walz’s use of emergency authority
Pelowski was one of just a few Democrats to vote to terminate Walz’s peacetime emergency order, which has given the governor power to quickly issue executive orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on everything from shuttering parts of the economy, to expanding unemployment benefits, to delaying evictions. The vote failed in the House, so the governor’s peacetime emergency powers will continue.
Pelowski said he cast that vote because Walz should listen to the needs of Greater Minnesota, because the Walz administration took too punitive of a response to the COVID-19 outbreak at Sauer Health Care in Winona, and because his executive orders closing businesses were too inflexible, a “one-size-fits-all” policy. “There was no way to temper these things or change them, so that our local businesses, our main street businesses would have the same ability to be open as a Walmart or Target,” he said. “I think we all know what the limits are. You should be wearing a mask. You should be social distancing. I think the businesses want that, too,” Pelowski stated.
Miller said he felt the Walz administration overreacted to the pandemic. “I think if he would have worked together and gotten input from the legislature, the economic decisions on business closure could have been different … He wasn’t hearing from the folks in Greater Minnesota, and the situation in Greater Minnesota was different.”
Walz has said the business shutdown was a necessary sacrifice to slow the spread of the virus, give the state time to prepare, and save thousands of lives.
Legislature fails to pass local COVID-19 relief
Echoing news reports from across the state, Pelowski, Goggin, and Miller stated that lawmakers from both parties had reached a deal earlier this year on how to distribute $841 million in federal COVID-19 relief to local governments across the state, but DFL lawmakers insisted on tying unrelated state spending onto the local relief package. When Republicans balked at that, the relief package failed to pass entirely.
“When you give your word and say you’re going to do something and then you renege on it, I lose faith in people very quickly when they do that,” Goggin stated.
Twin Cities Democrats’ insistence on police reform also contributed to the failure of the local COVID-19 relief package, Pelowski said. “In that case, I do agree that [Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul] Gazelka had a legitimate point,” Pelowski stated. “We should have compromised and taken care of what was reasonable and tackle the rest in another special session.”
Despite the impasse during the special session, Pelowski said and the Star Tribune reported that Walz may release the federal aid to local governments anyway — without the legislative deal Walz was pushing for last week. If that happens, Miller said, “That leads me to think it was nothing more than a political stunt.”
State leaders expect Walz may call a second special session this summer to give lawmakers another chance at passing key legislation. If so, the major pieces of legislation need to be ironed out in weeks of public committee hearings leading up to another special session, Pelowski said. Miller said a small, bipartisan working group should strike compromises on key bills before another special session.