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Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, introduces the judiciary components of the House public safety/judiciary omnibus bill on Monday. A Lesch measure that would allow couples to divorce without involving the adversarial court process touched off a heated debate centered on domestic abuse. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Family matters heat up House debate

While two controversial firearms measures garnered all the attention going into the public safety/judiciary omnibus House floor debate, the most heated arguments Monday centered on family law.

And in those cases, tensions were arguably greatest between Democrats.

After seven hours and long after midnight, the omnibus passed 70-64 — gun measures intact. To do that, it had to survive five DFL defections.

The Senate put its own judiciary/public safety bills to bed with a 44-23 floor vote on April 24. Both now await conference committee negotiations, where lawmakers will try to reconcile their vast differences.

The $2.78 billion House bill — at 300 pages plus appendix — is massive compared with its slender 30-page Senate corollary. Senate Judiciary Chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he kept his $2.38 billion bill free of non-finance-policy changes to honor the state constitution’s single-subject clause.

On Monday, there was abundant noise outside the House chambers from activists supporting the DFL’s gun background check and red-flag restraining order measures. By contrast, gun debate on the floor was a little flat. It had been argued numerous times in committee by most of the same people who spoke Monday.

DFLers generally support the measures and Republicans oppose them as a bloc. Still, it is likely that the five DFLers who quietly voted against their majority’s omnibus did so because of the gun measures. Gun control has less support in those members’ Greater Minnesota districts.

The defections included Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing; Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls; Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora; Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth; and Rep. Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko. Marquardt and Sundin are both House committee chairs.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, reiterated Monday that the gun language has no chance of surviving conference committee.

Do-it-yourself divorce

What really stirred passions on the floor Monday, however, were family-law matters.

One such measure, from House Judiciary Chair John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, would introduce “cooperative divorces” to Minnesota. Essentially, the system would allow couples to divorce without hiring attorneys, a step that Lesch — himself an attorney — said pits couples against each other when they might otherwise split amicably.

“This is about giving people the opportunity to decide for themselves, without hiring someone for tens of thousands of dollars to tell them that they are not being mean enough — that they are entitled to more,” Lesch said.

In earlier committee testimony and again Monday, Lesch said his own divorce 15 years ago illustrates the point. He and his former wife were on the point of divorcing amicably, he said, until they hired attorneys. Then proceedings suddenly became both acrimonious and expensive.

His do-it-yourself divorce idea has faced staunch opposition from domestic abuse advocates who say that, without oversight from the court, abusers could gain the upper hand in divorce settlements and women could be at placed heightened risk of violence. Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, offered an amendment to strip the Lesch reform out of the omnibus.

He countered by saying that lawmakers consistently face resistance to divorce and child-custody reforms from victims’ advocates who “make this a proxy issue for domestic abuse.”

Yet reforms have passed into law over the years with no backlash, he said. The same advocates later use reforms that they once opposed as examples of status-quo law that must be preserved to protect victims from domestic violence, he said.

Lesch said the advocates are entitled to defend women’s safety interests, which he said he also firmly supports. “But we are entitled to the lens of history in viewing, every time, that the same thing has been said,” he said. “Meanwhile, families suffer, children suffer.”

Becker-Finn, an assistant majority leader, bristled at Lesch’s statements. “This does matter and it is not some proxy for something else — and it isn’t a game to me,” she said. “It really is about making sure that there is a way that the party who does not have the power in a domestic abuse situation does not get taken advantage of.”

After Lesch spoke, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, urged GOP members to vote against the Becker-Finn amendment. It failed 63-68, preserving Lesch’s language and leaving some DFLers stunned.

“I am frankly shocked about some of the things I am hearing here tonight,” said Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, who accused Lesch and others of attacking the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, one of his measure’s key opponents. “I actually just don’t even have words to say in response.”

While Lesch won his battle, the spat might have cost another member, Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, hers.

Scott’s “shared parenting” amendment would increase the legally presumed amount of custody time that divorcing parents spend with their kids, from a 25 percent minimum for one parent to half time for each.

Lesch, who has long supported the effort, told Scott that he would vote against the change Monday because of the controversy generated by his cooperative-divorce measure.

“As you can see, tensions are high on this floor,” Lesch said. “It is a heavy enough lift to convince purveyors of the status quo just to be able to agree to [couples divorcing] on their own.”

Scott fought back tears as she replied. “I am really sorry that your leadership’s not more supportive of you, Representative Lesch,” she said. “That’s really sad.”

A vote on the Scott amendment was held open for an extended time. Several DFL votes were seen switching from green for yes to red for no before it ended with a 67-67 tie, killing the amendment. One GOP member, Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, voted no.

In an interview early Tuesday, Scott accused DFL leaders of twisting arms to ensure that the measure was defeated.

“I think the deal was that if shared-parenting went in, too, that they would not have the votes in the DFL” to pass the full omnibus, Scott said. “That’s why you saw last night what you saw, I believe.”

Other provisions

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, (standing, center of frame) rises to address an amendment during a long evening floor debate over the House public safety/judiciary omnibus bill Monday. The bill survived five DFL defections to pass the House 70-64. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, (standing, center of frame) rises to address an amendment during a long evening floor debate over the House public safety/judiciary omnibus bill Monday. The bill survived five DFL defections to pass the House 70-64. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Many other provisions passed with the bill. It retains language to hire new 110 corrections officers, for instance, and preserves efforts to reintroduce a corrections ombudsman to Minnesota’s prison system. Rep. Carlos Mariani, the House Public Safety committee chair, said reviving the ombudsman’s office might be the single most significant improvement for making prisons safer.

The bill also eliminates the statute of limitations on sex-trafficking crimes. It raises District Court judges’ salaries by 4 percent per year over the 2020-21 biennium. It increases civil court filing fees by $50, requires police to develop sex-assault investigation policies and hires more guardians ad litem and public defenders, along with a lot more.

One major reform originally included in the bill got excised and also involved Lesch. A Moller amendment to strip Lesch’s entire civil forfeiture reform section was approved, 95-35. In its place was put a task force to study the issue.

Lee McGrath of the Institute for Justice is a strong proponent of eliminating civil asset forfeitures and tying them into criminal cases. In an interview, he said a task force would slow-roll but not kill the reform, which is in part driven by contrary court rulings.

“They may have won a battle today in the House by getting a study committee done,” McGrath said. “But the long-term momentum in the courts and in public opinion is for the end of civil forfeiture and replacing it with criminal forfeiture.”

Next steps

It was not yet known early Tuesday when the joint House-Senate public safety and judiciary conference committee would launch. It could happen any time after May 1 when the House was scheduled to wrap up the last of its omnibus bills.

On Monday, House Speaker Melissa Hortman indicated there might be two separate conference committees for the Senate File 802 omnibus — one for its public safety components, the other for its judiciary provisions.

That would require Limmer to similarly split his division’s bill and chair two conference committees. In one, he would negotiate with Lesch; in the other with Mariani. Hortman said she will urge Limmer to adopt that arrangement.

There was no word back from the GOP Senate caucus at press time as to whether Limmer might go along with the idea.

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