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Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia (center), was one of seven Republicans to vote against House Public Safety committee's omnibus finance bill on April 5. Nash said two gun bills added to the bill late were deal killers. Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul (left) and Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, are also pictured. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

House Public Safety omnibus gets no GOP votes

Were it not for the late addition of two gun bills in the House Public Safety committee’s omnibus finance package, several GOP members said late on April 4, House File 2792 might have gotten bipartisan support.

Instead, as steered through committee by its chair, Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, the bill passed along straight party lines, 10-7. It now moves to Ways and Means for an April 11 hearing and is tentatively scheduled for an April 29 House floor vote.

House File 8, a background check bill, and House File 9, an extreme-risk protection order bill, were added to the package about half way through what turned out to be a seven-hour hearing, interrupted only by a House floor session and a short evening break.

The debate over the guns bills split along now familiar lines in a near repeat of earlier debates.

Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, introduced two gun bills: House File 8, a background check bill, and House File 9, an extreme-risk protection order bill. “More than half of all Americans live in states that have these laws,” he said. “We're really not breaking new ground in that way.” (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, introduced two gun bills: House File 8, a background check bill, and House File 9, an extreme-risk protection order bill. “More than half of all Americans live in states that have these laws,” he said. “We’re really not breaking new ground in that way.” (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Republicans argued the bills would do nothing to stem gun violence and would only serve to inconvenience or even criminally punish law-abiding gun owners, while threatening their constitutional rights. Democrats said that other states that have imposed similar laws have reduced gun violence.

“More than half of all Americans live in states that have these laws,” said Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, who introduced both amendments. “We’re really not breaking new ground in that way.”

As the long hearing drew to a close, Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, said she had hoped to cast a vote for the omnibus.  “As you know,” she told Mariani, “with the two gun bills going on, that’s just not something that I can do.”

Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, a former Public Safety chair and the committee’s GOP lead, said DFLers squandered an opportunity to pass a bipartisanship bill.

“When you put House Files 8 and 9 on this bill—because you don’t have the votes to get it off the floor—that made it to a point where you have nobody voting for it,” he said, referring to own caucus. He accused Democrats of using the legislation to bash police officers and neglect crime victims.

“I’m very disappointed in this bill,” he said. “The name of this bill is the Unsafe Communities Bill.”

Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, whose felon voting provisions are in the bill, defended HF 2792. “We all know that this place can be a very political place,” he said near the hearing’s end. “I will be supporting the bill today.”

Author’s amendment

Mariani’s author’s amendment made numerous changes to the bill during the afternoon, even before members offered 44 amendments of their own Thursday evening. By the end, the package had swelled to 241 pages, not counting its appendix.

The author’s amendment added new language from Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, to limit police use of unmanned drone aircraft without a warrant except in specified emergencies. Mariani also inserted O’Neill’s ignition interlock bill language, which inadvertently got omitted from the original.

He also added language requesting that the governor use existing resources to fund an interagency enforcement coordinator for statewide response to the opioid epidemic, among other changes.

As finally passed, HF 2792 places more emphasis on corrections than public safety; its public safety appropriations total $403.3 million, while corrections provisions triple that at $1.289 billion.

Of the corrections money, $2.248 million in 2020 and $5.433 million in 2021 would add as many as 110 full-time corrections officers, plus up to six lieutenants. The bill spends $11.3 million over two years on critical corrections security upgrades, $8 million on DOC staff recruitment and retention and $1.8 million to reestablish the Office of the Ombudsman for Corrections, among a bevy of other DOC allocations.

Meanwhile, almost $80.1 million of the public safety money goes to the Office of Justice Programs to administer grants. Of that, $400,000 over two years goes for domestic abuse prevention, $300,000 for the children’s legal representation and $1 million for youth intervention programs—half of which is aimed at African American and African immigrant youth.

Another $400,000 OJP grant would develop a “Community Policing Excellence Report” peace officer discipline database—a program that chafed some GOP members. Another $200,000 would go to OJP grants to support safe storage of firearms—a grant tied to the red-flag firearms bill, under which could guns be temporarily removed from their owners.

Evening session

GOP members spent part of the evening session trying to excise entire sections of the bill. That included Article 9, the section titled “Pretrial Release, Sentencing, Probation and Diversion.”

One of that article’s provisions makes teens convicted of heinous crimes eligible for parole after 25 years. Another largely forbids kids from being placed in restraints during court appearances. A third places a five-year cap on most felony probations, though it allows for several extensions if offenders don’t meet expectations.

Efforts to have that section deleted failed on a party-line vote.

Republicans also tried to delete the Uniform Collateral Consequences Act article, originally from a bill by Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield. It requires law enforcement and the courts to notify a subject that their guilty plea could make them ineligible later for licenses, housing and jobs and from possessing firearms.

“It places an undue burden and requirements on law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts,” Johnson said. The DFL majority disagreed and kept the language.

GOP members also tried to extract the entire law enforcement article from the bill. “This article has a number of provisions that are actually hostile to law enforcement and use the premise that the police are bad,” Johnson said.

That section, Article 4, contains language about law enforcement’s use of drone aircraft, the peace officer discipline database and new sexual assault investigation and eyewitness identification policy requirements, among other provisions. Again, DFLers overrode GOP objections and retained them.

Several Republican members tried unsuccessfully to introduce some new measures. Rep. Eric Lucero, DFL-Dayton, for instance, wanted to make it a gross misdemeanor on first offense to falsely report a bias crime. That garnered no DFL support.

Likewise, an O’Neill amendment to require a prospective parole board—language for which is included in the omnibus—must comprise sitting or retired judges. That failed, too.

Some GOP ideas were accepted, however. One from Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearwater, adds two additional civilian members to the Peace Officer Standards and Training [POST] Board—making a total of four in the bill. It was accepted. Grossell’s amendment requires that two of the four new public members live outside the Twin Cities.

Near the end of the hearing, one successful DFL amendment attracted a lone GOP vote. That came from O’Neill, who voted for an amendment from Rep. Shelly Christensen, DFL-Stillwater, to ban private prisons from Minnesota.

That amendment provoked an emotional response from Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, whose district includes the former privately run Appleton prison. Miller has for years tried to find ways to either reopen the prison as a federal facility, or to sell or lease it to the state for use by the Department of Corrections.

“Appleton is a community that’s been dying since this place was being closed,” Miller said. “This ensures that that community’s going to die.”

Christensen empathized but noted that efforts to reduce prison populations could render Appleton’s facility moot. “I don’t think this is probably the best economic model for you to rebuild the town,” she said.

In the end, the omnibus passed 10-7 with no Republican votes. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said the gun bills’ presence means the omnibus is unlikely to fare so well with the GOP-led Senate.

“I just think that this bill, which did have some things that I think we all could agree on, is destined for failure,” Nash said. “Because it includes now two things that are guaranteed dead on arrival over in the other body, where they wear wigs and speak slowly in ‘thees’ and ‘thous.’”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka had said that if the House passed its gun bills as standalones off the House floor, he would grant them committee hearings. DFLers’ move to tuck them into a big omnibus could violate that pre-condition.

Or perhaps not. After an April 5 press conference, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the bills still could get standalone floor votes.

“There are also very likely to be amendments on the floor to take them out [of the omnibus],” Winkler said. “I would guess that Republicans would want to try to amend those out and get a nice clean vote. So if they are looking at a clean vote, I am sure that the amendment process and second reading would provide that.”

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