Editor’s note: Welcome to Capitol Retort, our weekly review of issues in state and national news, with a rotating cast of legal and political people in the know. Answers are edited for length and clarity. Any instances of agreement are accidental.
Question 1: The House and Senate public safety omnibus bills differ wildly. The Senate’s declines to fund a sex offender registry system, prison mental health service expansion and most of a popular police training initiative. The House bill’s target has double the discretionary spending. What gives?
Mike Freiberg, DFL House member, public health attorney: I can’t speak to what is happening in the Senate, especially on this issue. I do know that [House Public Safety Chair Rep.] Tony Cornish is a strong advocate for the law-enforcement community. So it wouldn’t surprise me if he strongly argued in favor of a substantial amount of funding, and that the speaker [Rep. Kurt Daudt] heard and accommodated him somewhat. I know that bargaining position going into conference committee plays a role in these things, too.
Greg Davids, House Taxes Committee chair: I think there are two separate bodies. They get different numbers and we work with the numbers that we have. They will have to pass their bills, get to conference and have a budget target agreed to. That’s the way it goes.
You can take that idea over to the [House] Taxes Committee, also. We have $1.35 billion [in tax relief], the Senate has $900 million and the governor has $300 million. That’s why you have the conference committee. I will be taking the tax bill to conference advocating for the House position, and I am sure that Chair Cornish will do the same thing. That is why we are going through the process. We will come to some agreements and get the bills passed.
Dave Ornstein, ex-Bloomington city attorney, brother of Washington insider Norm Ornstein: I suppose one of the issues might be fiscal conservatism. But it is hard for me to believe that any reasonable legislator would argue for reduced funding for something like police training, where you’d think there would be a consensus. It’s in the public interest to provide additional training for all law enforcement personnel for things like domestic abuse and mentally ill people and some of these other circumstances. Anything that would reduce use of firearms or other lethal weapons in situations that can be handled without seriously injuring or killing somebody, it seems to me, is a wise investment.
Question 2: FBI director James Comey has revealed his agency is investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Yet the chair of the House panel investigating that issue last week bypassed his committee, taking intelligence directly to the president. Where is this issue headed?
Freiberg: [Laughs] If I have little idea what is going on in the Minnesota Senate, I probably have less idea what is going on in the federal government. I don’t think things are always peaches and cream and sunshine and rainbows in the Minnesota House, but compared to what is going on in the federal government right now, it does seem like maybe things are going a little better here. It’s just sideshow after sideshow at the federal government. It just seems that everything is coming to a head in Washington. These are unusual times that we live in.
Davids: I think if they are going to investigate Trump and the Russians, then they should talk about Hillary Clinton and the Russians. Because we’d better be talking to other countries. I would hope we would. So this is much ado about nothing.
Ornstein: I don’t understand what [U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin] Nunes’ objective is. He must have been pressured by people in the White House. It’s not really clear, at this point, who was the source of the information that was discussed between Nunes and the White House staff, where it came from or what exactly it involved. It clearly had nothing to with former President Obama wiretapping Trump, which I think has been dispelled by everybody in the know. But I am really disturbed by what appears to be political pressure on the part of the White House to influence this investigation.
It certainly raises the questions of whether that committee can go forward. I have more confidence that the Senate will do a bipartisan and objective investigation into this. And don’t forget that the FBI is conducting its own investigation. I hope, and I have a fair amount of confidence that it will conduct an independent and objective investigation in which politics plays no role. If that were to occur, we’d be heading towards a Watergate, Part 2.
Question 3: The whispers are starting — misaligned priorities between the governor and Legislature mean that Minnesota is headed for a government shutdown. Is that your prediction? Or do you expect a smooth end-of-session landing?
Freiberg: I definitely do not expect a smooth end-of-session landing. But I don’t know that I am willing to speculate we will go to a shutdown at this point. I think it will be messy and it will probably come down to the last day or two. But a lot of people want to get things done, I feel. Two years ago it took a special session, but we did manage to avert the special session at least. And something like that might be possible again.
Davids: The governor shut the state down in 2011 for about three weeks; I hope he doesn’t do it again. I am very optimistic that we can come up to an agreement. We will write a tax bill that the governor will be happy to sign — that he will be eager to sign. He will say, “Mr. Chairman, can you get over here quickly so I can sign your tax bill?” And then we will get agreements on the other areas.
A tax bill just passed out of committee with not even a roll call, just a couple of whispered no’s. Why? Because in every committee meeting I give everybody that wants a chance to testify for something or with their concerns. The departments have been involved in every bill that they wanted to be involved in. So this will be a very bipartisan bill and we will be working with the governor’s office. I want to get it done. We have to come together. Right now. For tax relief.
Ornstein: I don’t expect a smooth end-of-session landing, but I don’t think there will be a shutdown. I think both sides realize that the public won’t stand for that. I expect that there might be some vetoes that create real problems in terms of major legislation. But I am optimistic that they will work things out, for the most part.