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Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, co-chairs of the public safety and judiciary conference committee, chat before the Monday’s opening hearing. Senate Counsel Ken Backhus (foreground) also is pictured. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Public safety conference committee launches

The sides are miles apart on spending and policy, but members of the joint House-Senate public safety/judiciary conference committee seemed to be on the same page, at least when it comes to congeniality.

Even before last Monday’s meeting began, the co-chairs—Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove—were seen casually talking and laughing. Both then walked around the room amiably shaking hands and chatting with members of the other caucus.

That might seem like rote behavior for politicians, but it’s a marked difference from 2017 when the GOP led both legislative chambers.

Those public safety conference committee hearings were more tense from the outset, culminating in an angry outburst from the House’s former co-chair, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who snapped at the Isaiah Project’s Lars Negstad for having the temerity, as a liberal, to quote Bible verse during testimony.

But with mild-mannered Limmer and an equally calm Mariani in charge, that kind of intemperance is unlikely—at least from the head of the table. The duo were chums in the House before Limmer was elected to the Senate in 1995 and they have a history of working closely together on projects. Those include the state’s 2009 Real ID ban, which has since been lifted.

Not that there won’t be arguments before a compromise bill emerges. The committee must resolve a $200 million spending gap between the House and Senate bills that fund Minnesota’s cops, courts and corrections.

The committee did little more than run through the 30-page Senate version Monday. On Tuesday, after this story’s deadline, it was scheduled to hear the House version—which is 10 times longer than the Senate bill—and also take limited testimony.

In an interview, Limmer said negotiations to reconcile the bills would begin in earnest on March 8—assuming the governor and the two chambers’ legislative leaders can agree on how much money is available to spend. They failed to do that despite all-day meetings on March 6.

Minnesota Lawyer will continue monitoring events closely.

Signal of comity

In a sign Monday of comity between the committee leaders, Limmer—who held the opening session’s gavel—allowed Mariani to give his opening statement on the House’s objectives before he offered his own.

Mariani described the House bill as “muscularly built” and “aggressive.” It proposes probation reform, four new Human Rights satellite offices, two major pieces of gun-reform legislation and much else besides.

That’s in marked contrast to a Senate bill that adds just 60% as many corrections officers as the House. The Senate does little more beyond that than increase spending on state employee health insurance payments, and only for two years.

Both the House and the governor’s public safety/judiciary budgets include big funding boosts above the base budget established in 2017. Gov. Tim Walz proposes spending $226.3 million over base (a 9.6% increase), while the DFL-led House wants to spend an extra $232.5 million (a 9.9% increase).

The Senate bill adds just 1.1%—$25.3 million—to the existing bottom line.

“We clearly have two different bills,” Mariani said. “But what we do have in common is that we care very deeply about these accounts. … I have no doubt that that is a 100% unanimous sentiment in this room.”

Limmer, who publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the budget numbers he got from Republican leadership, didn’t quite express equivalent sentiments. But he did offer a nod to budget areas where he thinks both parties agree—even though only the House currently funds them.

For instance, Limmer said he wants to find a way to pay for new guardians ad litem. The House bill hires 46 new guardians, the Senate’s currently hires none.

Limmer has the same hopes for public defenders. The House bill wants to hire 108 attorneys and support staff, while the Senate currently pays for none. Limmer also wants the committee to make sure courts are permanently funded—not as a kind of quasi-government agency subject to the Legislature’s shifting political breezes, but as the independent third branch it is.

Still, Limmer said, if none of those things immediately happen the world would not end. The Senate’s bill sufficiently funds the core governmental services in its domain, he said.

“I don’t believe the criminal justice system will fall apart if the Senate version is ultimately passed,” Limmer said.

Strictly budget

Limmer said the Senate’s bill is strictly a budget bill. “There are policy decisions that are included, but they are only included when they affect the budget that we have been given,” he said. “Our purpose is to pass a responsible budget.”

Pure policy matters, Limmer said, will be dealt with in the remaining weeks of session as stand-alone bills on the Senate floor. As if to punctuate his point, the Senate later on Monday unanimously passed a mini-omnibus corrections policy bill. Limmer said he would press for more such action in the weeks ahead.

But Mariani suggested that might not be good enough, particularly if the Senate passes policy bills never considered by the lower chamber.

“Unless there is a matching provision in the House, this is the only place where Senate priorities are going to have an opportunity to be fully vetted,” he said. “So I look forward to working that out.”

Limmer said he hopes raised budget target emerges from negotiations with the governor.

Debate Monday was limited; the issue of guns, for instance, never came up. But House DFLers did highlight a few areas where they hope agreements might be reached.

Mariani expressed concern at the way the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board is funded, largely through traffic tickets and other citations. The board has been running short of money in recent years, partly because there is a movement away from “criminalizing poverty” by fining low-income citizens who can’t afford to pay, he said.

“It’s a tough way to run a vital entity like that,” Mariani said.

The House wants to shift POST Board training funds away from fine collections and toward the state’s general fund, which is considered a steadier funding source. The Senate wants only to increase the percentage of fine proceeds that get directed to the POST Board. Gov. Tim Walz takes the Senate’s position.

Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, chair of House Judiciary and a conferee, expressed concerns about court funding and the Senate’s failure to pay for any new guardians ad litem. He also worried that the public defenders’ ranks aren’t being shored up by the Senate.

“They testified in committee that if they were shortchanged, or had a shortfall, innocent people might go to prison,” Lesch said of the public defenders. He asked Limmer how that funding gap can be closed.

Limmer didn’t have an immediate answer but indicated his hopes are similar to Lesch’s. “We have got a little work to do,” he told Lesch, “but I think we can work together on it.”

After the hearing, Mariani acknowledged that he has at least two big challenges ahead. One is to convince the Senate GOP members to relax their opposition to policy provisions. But another could come from inside his own caucus.

During floor debate on the House public safety/judiciary bill, the shrillest argument was over a measure introduced by Lesch to reform divorce procedure so that couples could split without hiring attorneys. Domestic abuse prevention advocacy groups rallied against it, and the measure survived as part of the omnibus only because Republicans unified behind it and some DFLers stood with Lesch.

Mariani said Lesch probably doesn’t have the votes in his own party for that measure to survive conference committee. That could be a bitter pill for the Judiciary chair, who also lost another of his key priorities—a civil forfeiture reform bill, which was replaced on the House floor by a task force to study the issue.

That could be a recipe for internecine strife within the caucus, Mariani acknowledged. But he thinks he can keep things under control.

“I think the challenge,” he said, “is how do I make sure that Chair Lesch doesn’t walk away with nothing.”

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