A $2 billion surplus, as it turns out, is no guarantee of comity at the Capitol these days.
After the Legislature adjourned Monday amid a flurry of last-minute bill introductions, some of which were never heard in committee, and plenty of recriminations from both sides of the aisle, it seemed that nobody was satisfied with the session’s work.
Democrats didn’t get their gas tax. Republicans didn’t get their tax cuts. And Gov. Mark Dayton, who didn’t get the pre-K funding at the centerpiece of his legislative agenda, was so unhappy that he vetoed the education package, which will force lawmakers to return to St. Paul for a special session.
Against that backdrop, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, was a bit of an outlier. The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Tuesday that he is relatively satisfied with his piece of the budget deal — a $2.12 billion omnibus judiciary and public safety bill.
“I think it’s a pretty balanced package and we were able to find common ground in a variety of areas,” Latz said. “In some ways, this turned out to be a very bi-partisan session.”
In the end, the compromise on the judiciary package — $29 million more than the GOP-controlled House wanted but $6 million short of what the DFL-controlled Senate wanted — sailed through both chambers with veto-proof majorities, passing the House by a vote of 116-15 and Senate by 55-9.
The deal gives the judicial branch its top priority for the biennium: a 4 percent boost in compensation for judges and court employees over each of the next two years. That was a smidgeon short of the 5 percent increase sought by Dayton but well above the 1.5 percent increase in the House proposal.
There was some good news for long-beleaguered Board of Public Defense, which will get an additional $6.48 million to hire up to 36 public defenders.
“That will go a long way to help reduce case loads and to help retain lawyers in the mid-range tenure who find it most attractive to jump to private practice,” said Latz.
Other new spending includes an additional $11.4 million for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which will use the money to upgrade its crime lab, hire specialized forensic staff, and develop a new financial crimes unit to target fraud committed against state agencies.
Jurors were among the losers in the deal, as the conference committee scotched a Senate plan to boost long-frozen per diem payments (from $12 to $20) and travel compensation (from 27 cents a mile to 42 cents a mile). The proposal would have cost about $3 million over two years.
While Latz said he was pleased by the budgetary components of the package, he expressed considerable disappointment over the policy provisions that didn’t survive the weekend negotiations, including a much ballyhooed measure to restore voting rights to felons upon release from prison.
“The House Republican caucus refused to budge on that one,” Latz said. “After pushing for three solid days, I spoke directly to Speaker [Kurt] Daudt and he said they wouldn’t do it this year but are open to discussions next year.”
Another bill that wound up on the cutting room floor — the Latz-sponsored Police and Community Confidence Act — would have mandated that investigations into police-related fatalities be handled by outside agencies. That proposal was met with opposition from the powerful law enforcement lobby, including the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis.
Latz also lamented lawmakers’ failure to reach agreement on a suite of overhauls to DWI law that were aimed at boosting low participation rates in the state’s ignition interlock program. One particularly controversial provision would have allowed convicted drunken drivers to avoid vehicle forfeiture if they agreed to install ignition interlock.
Although it was backed by both Mothers against Drunk Driving and the DWI Task Force, Latz said the political dynamics of the issue — and any perception of being soft on drunken drivers – were too much to overcome. Lawmakers who had backed earlier legislation that was also aimed at incentivizing participation in ignition interlock were hammered for those votes in the 2014 elections, he noted.
Two minor tweaks to DWI law did survive the final cut.
In response to a controversial decision from the Minnesota Supreme Court last year (Axelberg v. Commissioner of Public Safety), lawmakers approved a measure which explicitly permits drunken driving suspects to invoke a necessity defense in an implied consent proceedings. In Axelberg, the court ruled that an intoxicated woman who was fleeing her abusive spouse could raise a common law necessity defense in connection with the criminal charge but not for purposes of appealing the license revocation.
In the other DWI law change, driving with a blood alcohol level of .16 or greater will be considered an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes; the threshold was previously .20 or more.
Although it was officially outside the purview of his committee, Latz expressed dismay that lawmakers failed to take action on two emerging technologies with significant legal implications — police body cameras and drones.
“These things are coming, whether we like it or not, and at some point we’re going to have to give local police departments some guidance on this and create some sort of protection for the data. It just boggles my mind that the House didn’t want to go there,” he said.
Did the session’s messy end — viewed against the backdrop of a relatively ample surplus — indicate a worsening partisan divide at the Legislature?
Latz, now in 13th year at the Capitol, said he thinks so.
“It’s really hard to negotiate with people who are adamant that they won’t budge, so now we’re left with a billion dollars on the bottom line that’s just going to sit in a bond account somewhere, earning about three-quarters of a percent of interest,” he added.
By the numbers
Court spending under judiciary budget FY 201-2017 (in millions):
|Court of Appeals||
Other amounts (in millions):
|Civil Legal Services||
Source: State Court Administration