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A committee responsible for recommending enhanced safety procedures at the Capitol is advocating a big increase in security spending, but remains deeply divided over the issue of firearms inside the Capitol.

Capitol panel wants to raise security budget

A commission dedicated to Capitol complex security met on Tuesday to discuss a recommended budget that would nearly double the amount spent annually on security personnel. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

An advisory committee dedicated to Capitol complex security met on Tuesday to discuss a recommended budget that would nearly double the amount spent annually on security personnel. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

A committee responsible for recommending enhanced safety procedures at the Capitol is advocating a big increase in security spending, but remains deeply divided over the issue of firearms inside the Capitol.

The Advisory Committee on Capitol Security met on Tuesday to approve a draft version of its recommendations to the Legislature, and the group endorsed proposals that would come close to doubling state spending on Capitol security in the coming years. The current budget for security in and around the Capitol Area Complex, which comprises 17 state buildings and their surrounding grounds, is about $4.6 million per year. The recommendations approved at Tuesday’s hearing would increase security funding to more than $8 million annually beginning in fiscal year 2016.

Much of that new spending would go toward hiring new personnel. The state currently employs eight state troopers and 40 non-sworn security officers. Under the proposed increases, the security presence at the Capitol would be raised to 12 State Patrol officers, a number that would ensure at least one officer on hand at all times, while the security presence would be increased to 67 officers.

The idea of bolstering the number of security personnel on hand is supported by the Office of the Legislative Auditor, the National Guard and the Department of Public Safety (DPS), according to DPS assistant commissioner Mark Dunaski, a non-voting member of the security committee. Dunaski said increasing the number of personnel patrolling the Capitol area helps add to the “perception of safety,” which could serve as a deterrent to a potentially dangerous person.

The recommendation to add four State Patrol officers was approved unanimously, but the security hike passed by a 3-2 margin, with Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, voting in opposition.

Both Ingebrigtsen and Woodard said recent updates in security equipment, including keycard access points and dozens of new surveillance cameras, should be sufficient to help guarantee safety without the need to hire additional non-sworn security officers.

Firearm ban rebuffed

The meeting grew more divisive when the committee turned to the topic of carrying firearms at the Capitol. More than 800 Minnesotans have filed with the DPS to indicate that they have a permit to carry a firearm and may bring their pistol into the Capitol. Originally, the draft recommendation would have required gun owners to update that notification annually; at Ingebrigtsen’s urging, that timeframe was adjusted to renewing the notification every five years, and was adopted by the committee.

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, then brought an amendment that would have banned bringing firearms inside the Capitol, the State Office Building and the Minnesota Judicial Center, which houses the state Supreme Court. Paymar argued that the fact that the Capitol had so far been spared any violent altercations was not evidence that current safety measures are adequate.

“Having a ‘cross your fingers’ kind of policy coming out of this entity, which is charged with making recommendations about public safety on the Capitol complex, to me, is irresponsible,” said Paymar, who chairs the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

Ingebrigtsen pushed back, and pointed out that Gov. Mark Dayton had already said publicly he does not favor a move to ban firearms in the Capitol.

“We’ve also got the governor saying the same thing,” Ingebrigtsen said. “[Dayton] doesn’t see anything wrong with law-abiding citizens carrying handguns on the Capitol complex.”

Committee chair Yvonne Prettner Solon supported Paymar’s amendment. Supreme Court Justice Lori Gildea abstained from voting on the proposal, saying she would recuse herself in case the matter might come up in a future hearing of the state’s high court. Owing to her abstention, along with “no” votes from Woodard and Ingebrigtsen, Paymar’s amendment fell on a 2-2 tie vote. (The committee has six official voting members, but Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, was not in attendance for Tuesday’s hearing.)

Cornish, Latz concur on gun provision

Reached by phone on Tuesday, a pair of key legislators on public safety issues said they, too, oppose the idea of banning firearms inside the Capitol. Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, the minority lead on Paymar’s committee, said he is adamantly opposed to any move to limit citizens’ right to carry firearms.

Cornish added that he is not swayed by the suggestion that, in barring guns, Minnesota would be aligning itself with policies in place in other states.

“I really don’t give a damn what other states do when it comes to gun owners’ rights,” Cornish said. “If they want to give gun owners rights away in other states, that’s up to them.”

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he is generally supportive of the current approach toward permitting guns in the Capitol, and would support the requirement that those who plan to carry be required to file their permit to carry with the state.

Latz chaired contentious hearings on the issue of gun control earlier this year, and recalls that several members of the public made clear that they were carrying guns.

“I have no doubt there were some participants in the audience who made it obvious that they were carrying to members of the Legislature,” Latz said. “I didn’t feel personally intimidated by it at all.”

Latz added that at one point, he had a member of the audience removed after the man disrupted the hearing repeatedly, and said monitoring citizens’ behavior in that way is a better approach to Capitol safety than trying to screen the building’s many entrants upfront.

“Most of what’s going on there is not of the kind of emotional intensity that would make people nervous about their safety,”  Latz said. “We do have those [hearings] on occasion, and we take steps when it’s necessary to have more security personnel around.”

As Tuesday’s hearing came to a close, Prettner Solon said a final draft copy of the recommendations would be prepared by early January, and that the committee would meet in the first or second week of that month to approve the proposals.

About Mike Mullen

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