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Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, the House author of the omnibus jobs and commerce bill, indicated late Wednesday that the internet privacy provision could reappear in modified form by “the end of the weekend.” (File photo: Kevin Featherly)
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, the House author of the omnibus jobs and commerce bill, indicated late Wednesday that the internet privacy provision could reappear in modified form by “the end of the weekend.” (File photo: Kevin Featherly)

In the Hopper: Internet privacy; drive-by lawsuits; kids’ rights

Internet privacy: Though passed nearly unanimously by both chambers, a measure to protect Minnesotans’ internet privacy quietly disappeared from the omnibus jobs and commerce bill currently in negotiations last week.

However, the House author, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, indicated late Wednesday that the provision could reappear in modified form by “the end of the weekend.”

If it plays out that way, pressure from Democrats will likely play a key role.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, held a May 2 press conference to shine a spotlight on what they characterized as the provision’s unexplained deletion.

“In the middle of the night, behind closed doors, it got dropped out,” Latz said.

Both men said the provisions generated more constituent responses than any other legislation being considered this session.

Latz introduced the Senate provision on March 29 as a floor amendment. It would prohibit internet and telecommunications providers from selling Minnesotans’ private data without written permission from customers. That passed the Senate 66-1.

Thissen said the House amendment extends those protections to portals and social media sites like Google, Facebook and Microsoft. A second, related amendment regulates voice-recording internet applications like Apple Inc.’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, he said. Both passed on April 6 without House opposition.

Latz said the legislation was sparked by a March congressional resolution. It repealed federal rules requiring internet service providers to seek customers’ authorization before selling their browsing histories, internet purchases and other private data. President Donald Trump signed the repeal on April 3.

Latz said Tuesday that the Senate jobs and commerce conference committee’s co-chair, Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, told him the provisions were dropped during negotiations to reconcile the differing House and Senate omnibus jobs bills.

Garofalo confirmed that, saying that the House privacy provisions, while offering greater protections, also contained “unintended consequences” that he did not describe. Those are being worked through, he said.

“The original draft of the language was screwed up,” Garofalo said via email late Wednesday. “Rather than make the same mistake twice, we are working out the language so it addresses privacy concerns. I’m guessing we will have this resolved by the end of the weekend.”

Drive-by lawsuits: A bill to curtail so-called “drive-by lawsuits” over public accommodations for people with disabilities passed the House on April 27 and awaits a vote in the Senate.

The House bill, authored by Rep. Dennis Smith, R-Maple Grove, aims to achieve a legal balance. It wants to steer businesses toward compliance with “reasonable accommodations” standards under Minnesota’s Human Rights Act. But it also wants to help businesses avoid predatory lawsuits.

Several Minnesota business owners testified in committee hearings during the spring that they received legal summonses notifying them they were violating state accommodations standards. Yet even after quickly correcting violations, several testified, litigation proceeded. They ended up settling out of court for sums far greater than the cost of the repairs, they said.

The bill as passed by the House would give businesses 60 days to respond and fix accessibility barriers before any lawsuit could proceed. If weather prevents the problem from being corrected within that time, the business would get another 30 days’ leeway.

That did not sit well with Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, a Ramsey County prosecutor. “If we are going to make an exception for people to pursue their rights, let’s make sure it is a focused exception,” he said on the House floor. “Not one with an additional 30 days.”

His amendment to do away with that provision failed in a voice vote, as did a second Pinto amendment to carve out an exception for people with disabilities who pursue barrier cases without the aid of an attorney.

The bill had both GOP and DFL support. Rep. Clark Johnson, DFL-North Mankato, called it an “effective compromise” and asked Democrats to vote for it.

Smith said the bill, which he said was backed by Minnesota business groups, protects both businesses and people with disabilities, while curbing unscrupulous lawyers’ bad behavior.

“A no vote is a vote for the handful of attorneys that are doing this egregious behavior and turning their backs on disabled,” Smith said.

The bill, House File 1542, passed 110-22. As of Thursday, it was awaiting a vote of the Senate.

Kids’ rights: The Minnesota House unanimously passed a bill on April 27 that requires that foster children know they are entitled to an attorney.

Dubbed McKenna’s Law, the bill is named after McKenna Ahrenholz, a 12-year-old who spoke before the House Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee in March.

In stark and startling testimony, the girl told legislators a horrific personal story.

She and her siblings were abandoned by their mother and beaten and nearly starved by their father until social workers intervened, she said. Placed in foster care with her grandparents, Ahrenholz said the courts required the kids to return for parental visits with their father against their will.

There they were again left with little food and forced to live in filth for days on end, she testified. “What saved us was that my brother and sisters and I wrote a letter to judge telling him all that we had been through,” she said in her March 9 testimony. “We were finally appointed an attorney.”

According to a KSTP-TV report last October, the children’s father, Jesse Ahrenholz, denied his kids had been abused. But he admitted that there times, usually at the end of the month when money ran out, when he was unable to afford food.

In March, McKenna asked legislators to pass a law requiring authorities to inform kids over age 10 of their already existing right to an attorney. Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, authored that bill.

Clearly moved by McKenna, who was in the House gallery watching as the legislation passed, Kresha joined a chorus of lawmakers who sang the 12-year-old’s praises. “We hear a lot about courage down here,” Kresha said. “But I will tell you, this young lady has now redefined courage for me.”

The bill received mild push back from Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, who noted that the public defenders’ office is being denied its budget request to hire more attorneys. McKenna’s Law would create even more demand for an already resource-deprived public defenders office, he noted.

“It is important that, as we’re providing notice of the right of kids to attorneys, we are also actually providing them attorneys to provide that support,” he said.

Kresha agreed and pledged to return to the Legislature “at the appropriate time” with proper fiscal notes and would try to secure funding for more public defenders.

The bill passed the House 130-0. At last check, it was awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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