Election cybersecurity money: The House says now. The Senate says not yet. Now it is up to a conference committee to decide who gets the final say.
House File 14 passed the House with a whopping 105-23 vote on Feb. 21. It appropriates $6.6 million in federal Help America Vote Act election cybersecurity money to the Secretary of State’s office to shore up the state’s critical election infrastructure.
The bill was then sent to the Senate, which had other ideas.
On Feb. 28, the upper chamber replaced HF 14’s language entirely with provisions from Senate File 241, a bill that allocates only $1.5 million of the available $6.6 million.
“It is the most important money that the Secretary of State needs for his cybersecurity program,” said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, chair of the Senate State Government and Elections committee and the author of SF 241. “This is a first, and there will be other money to come as well. But this is the first and most important.”
The House bill lacked only the federal government’s required 5 percent funding match, totaling about $330,000. But Secretary of State Steve Simon testified in committees earlier in the session that the matching funds could wait until after the larger bill gets signed into law.
The Senate bill provides the grant match, but leaves out the bulk of the grant—at least for the time being. In the Senate floor debate Democrats repeatedly asked why, but came away with no answers that satisfied them.
Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, said he has heard conservative commentators on local public affairs TV programs speculate that the HAVA money is being used as a bargaining chip for later in the session.
“I am not ready to ascribe such horrible motives to my opponents, but what I will say is if somehow that ends up being the case, the citizens are going to know about it,” Isaacson said. “Because this is not a bargaining chip. Our elections need to be safe for all of us.”
Kiffmeyer said the bill includes all urgently needed funds. The $1.5 million would modernize the Statewide Voter Registration System—a central voter registration database that was introduced more than a decade ago. “As far as the security part goes, this takes care of that,” Kiffmeyer said. “There are a few months more for the rest of it.”
But DFLers said the House bill would have fully funded a broad-ranging palette of cybersecurity upgrades needed to keep the Russians and other bad actors out of the system in time for the state’s March 3, 2020, presidential primary.
Sen. Carolyn Laine, DFL- Columbia Heights, said the full grant would finance activity-monitoring software to build up a record of attempted intrusions and help block attacks. It also would fund a network segmentation project to silo off portions of the system and prevent intruders from penetrating it deeply.
But Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, invoked the DFL’s spotty record rolling out digital systems like MNLARS and MNsure and urged members to take their time allocating all the funds. “When it comes to elections,” she said, “we have to get it right.”
The bill passed the Senate 35-32 along party lines. Later that day, the House debated for two hours on whether to concur. In the end, it declined in a 70-53 vote, sending it to conference committee. That conference, chaired by Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, was scheduled for its first hearing at 6 p.m. March 7.
Speaking Tuesday after he signed his first two bills into law, Gov. Tim Walz said he agrees that the full allotment is needed.
“I am deeply concerned when election integrity is ever threatened,” Walz said. “That is a dagger to the heart of the democracy. And we have to ensure people that by the time 2020 comes along, that we use all these federal resources and we get that right.”
Walz signed House File 861 into law, providing funding for the chronically hobbled `Minnesota Licensing and Registration System. He also signed House File 80, which provides $102.3 million in bonds for landfill cleanup, conservation, wastewater treatment upgrades and other improvements.
Walz said that not long ago he expected the election cybersecurity bill would be one of his first signings. But he withdrew it from negotiations with House and Senate leaders to focus on HF 861 and HF 80. “That’s the way give and take goes,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, was present for Tuesday’s bill signing. He said that election security is a GOP priority. “I expect something to get done,” Gazelka said.
“I am hopeful that we are close,” Walz said.
Juvenile justice: Three juvenile justice bills got hearings before the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform committee on Feb. 28. One was passed and handed over to the Judiciary committee with no GOP support.
That bill, House File 1679, is authored by freshman Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis. It would eliminate juvenile convictions as permanent job disqualifications in Human Services background studies, as long as five years or more have passed since the conviction.
Noor said Human Services background disqualifications often keep adults out of health and direct-care service industry jobs, even though they flag minor crimes committed when the applicant was a teen.
His bill also would raise the age at which a child can be considered delinquent from age 10 to age 13. And it would close public access to delinquency hearings and records for 16- and 17-year-olds charged with crimes that would be considered felonies in adult court.
Joshua Esmay, an attorney for the Legal Rights Center, said court hearings and records were opened to the public decades ago, when the public worried that teenage “super predators” were roaming the streets.
But the Minnesota County Attorneys Association and the Minnesota Newspaper Association oppose the provision. Robert Small, the county attorney association’s executive director, said that delinquency proceedings are open to the public to invite scrutiny of the court system.
“Without public scrutiny, no one knows what’s happening and secrecy breeds lack of accountability and lack of trust,” Small said. “The Minnesota County Attorneys Association does not want the system to be able to do whatever it wants behind closed doors, without knowledge of the community.”
Public Safety committee members voted 9-7 to send that bill over to House Judiciary, which did not scheduled it for a hearing this week. Only Democrats supported the bill.
The committee also debated House File 1678 and House File 897, two more juvenile justice bills.
HF 1678, authored by Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, would award $5 million in grants over the next two years for expansion of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). The money would put the program in place in all 87 Minnesota counties.
Katrina Dexter, its assistant coordinator, said JDAI has helped metro area counties save about $20 million by keeping juveniles out of detention facilities. She said counties engaged in the program have lowered juvenile detention admissions from an average of 9,000 per year to 3,300 per year.
The other bill, HF 1678, is authored by Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina. It would prohibit the use of restraints on children when they appear in court, unless a judge finds that there is no other way to protect the child from self-harm or from harming others.
Her bill also would permit law enforcement officers to divert juvenile suspects into detention-alternative programs if they otherwise might have be arrested for nonviolent offenses.
Small said he is unaware of any children being shackled in Minnesota courtrooms. But Edelson said it does happen, particularly in some smaller counties.
“We should not be putting kids in wrist and ankle shackles unless there is an actual safety or flight risk,” Edelson said. “It is profoundly humiliating and traumatic for children and their families. We don’t do this to adults in court and we shouldn’t do this to kids.”
HF 1678 and HF 897 were not voted on but instead laid aside. The committee was expected to continue its juvenile justice theme this week. Dehn’s bill, House File 1717, was scheduled for a hearing Wednesday, after this story’s deadline.
Among its changes, the Dehn bill would require courts to make offenders eligible for release after 25 years if they received life sentences without possibility of release before turning 18, and were either certified as adults or whose offense led to an extended-jurisdiction juvenile prosecution.