Gov. Tim Walz called for another special legislative session to convene Monday, July 13 — a gathering of state lawmakers that’s been criticized by local Republicans as a manipulative formality to extend Walz’ sweeping emergency powers amid COVID-19.
The session also looks to be a continuation of negotiations between DFL and Republican lawmakers over some key pieces of legislation — notably, the 2020 bonding bill and further statewide law enforcement reform — which have been cultural flash points in the former’s case, and a vital form of state funding for infrastructure projects across Minnesota in the latter’s case.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, was the subject of a Black Lives Matter protest Friday at his insurance office in Baxter, where he works as an agent. During a phone interview Thursday, July 9, Gazelka denounced what he said are ulterior intentions of his DFL counterparts, Walz and Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman, while simultaneously expressing confidence that both sides can find a satisfactory deal.
Local Republican lawmakers were at times scathing in their critique of deadlock and political gamesmanship in the June special session, while they expressed deep skepticism that July’s special session will prove much more productive. In addition, the GOP has decried Walz’s ongoing mandate of emergency powers as a form of dictatorship and abuse of power.
Still, Gazelka remained confident negotiations for the 2020 bonding bill and further statewide law enforcement reform would pass the finish line, pinning estimates at 90% and 85% respectively.
“I think that's going to go forward anyway,” Gazelka said. “I think there's enough people that realize that needs to get done regardless of some of the other things that are going on.”
Amid all the tumult of 2020, Gazelka said lawmakers can’t push vital pieces of legislation like the 2020 bonding bill to the back burner.
“I don't want to lose sight of the benefit of that to deliver local communities with wastewater, infrastructure, projects, roads, and bridges, buildings that need to be fixed,” Gazelka said. “These kinds of projects are spread out throughout all of Minnesota, many in rural Minnesota.”
Gazelka was dismissive of threats from some DFL lawmakers to hold up passage of the 2020 bonding bill until a number of police accountability reforms are passed, noting GOP leadership has presented 11 items of reform to the DFL leadership for consideration — a negotiation, he said, where both sides can find plenty of common ground.
These items are listed as follows on the “Senate Offer on Law Enforcement Accountability” dated 8:30 p.m., June 19:
Continued funding for enhanced training for law enforcement officers in crisis intervention, cultural diversity and mental illness.
Helping police officers deal with stress and trauma after critical incidents.
Expanding background checks for employees of law enforcement agencies.
Mandatory reporting of deadly force incidents to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Banning chokeholds and neck restraints through a uniform policy on use of force.
Requiring a duty to intervene and report for officers on the scene of an excessive force incident.
Instructing officers to preserve the sanctity of life and use non-deadly force whenever possible.
Adding two new community members to the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, appointed by the governor.
Adding four hours of mandatory autism training to the current 48 hours for each peace officer required every licensing cycle.
Clarifying the type of mental illness crisis training that is required with further detail in the statutory language.
Changing the police unions binding arbitration statutes regarding discipline and consequences.
The letter notes the GOP-led Senate will not agree to the following:
Restoring voting rights for felons not currently incarcerated.
Anything that defunds or dismantles a police force.
Providing the attorney general with independent jurisprudence for police-involved incidents.
Gazelka vehemently denounced what he sees as a push to defund or dismantle law enforcement agencies across the state and described it as a deal breaker he will not budge on.
“What I refuse to do is in any way defund or dismantle the police … like they have with all the (Minneapolis City Council) members are moving towards defunding the police and I just think that's the wrong approach,” Gazelka said. “I will not agree to that. … In the end, if it's about defunding or dismantling the police, I'm just never going to agree.”
Previously, DFL leadership in the House and Senate released statements that reject Gazelka’s position as a mischaracterization of negotiations, noting they are not looking to defund or dismantle police.
During the interview, Gazelka conceded DFL leadership does not have dismantling or defunding the police on the table as an item of negotiation, but based his position on statements by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and decisions of the Minneapolis City Council — a governing body, he said, which is dominated by DFLers. He described a DFL stipulation on the table to shift $14 million in funding to mental health services and other social services to address non-violent incidents as an attempt to defund police.
However, the Minneapolis City Council is the governing body of a local municipality and does not supersede or work in conjunction with lawmakers at the state level, while Omar is a member of Congress, not the state Legislature. Gazelka said defunding or dismantling police is a Democrat position, even if it’s not an explicit item in negotiations in which he takes part.
“One hundred percent of the Minneapolis City Council members are moving to defund the police, and that's a completely Democrat-run city,” Gazelka said. “Unless the governor and the speaker of the house and the senate minority leader condemn it, then I'm challenging them with that as a democratic position that I will not support.”
The Dispatch also spoke with Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, as well as state Reps. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, John Poston, R-Lake Shore, and Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, to get their thoughts on the June special session, Monday’s special session, and the climate of negotiations in St. Paul.
Heintzeman has repeatedly declined to comment other than by email, citing a discomfort with face-to-face or phone interviews and expressed sensitivity with how prior statements were presented in the Dispatch.
Judging by his emails, Heintzeman wasn’t largely interested in discussing his thoughts on this year’s special sessions, the 2020 bonding bill or law enforcement reforms, but took the opportunity to blast Walz as a wannabe monarch abusing his authority.
“Little progress has been made because the governor has made himself a king, issuing executive orders, rather than working with legislators,” Heintzeman’s email stated. “While it has been encouraging to see neighbors helping neighbors and many communities coming together during these difficult times, it's also been incredibly frustrating to see the pain caused by one man in St. Paul trying to run the entire state. In an emergency, I understand the need for the governor to be able to act quickly but we're way beyond that now.”
In his email, Heintzeman said the 2020 bonding bill will be stopped so long as Walz tight-fists executive powers.
“While deliberations can certainly continue, a bonding bill will not move forward until the governor relinquishes his emergency powers,” the email stated.
Ruud said lawmakers were disappointed that — after hours upon hours of late night negotiations between the GOP and the DFL on issues like CARES Act funding, law enforcement and the 2020 bonding bill — that Walz stepped in and cut off talks, implementing COVID-19 relief funds on his own terms.
“We were really disappointed in the governor, because I think the Legislature did a good job, our leadership did a good job of negotiating, and working on the bills that needed to be done,” Ruud said. Then later: “There's been no communication, again, with this governor, and it's very frustrating. He says everybody's working on stuff and he doesn't talk to us. And so he has his agenda, but he doesn't talk to us all.”
In terms of the bonding bill and law enforcement, Ruud said there are lawmakers on both sides committed to seeing it through and not getting hung up on partisan gamesmanship.
“What we really need to do in session is a good bonding bill, and then the tax relief bill,” she said, “and those things that we can agree on the public safety, we should agree on.”
Lueck was dismissive of threats from some DFL lawmakers to block the 2020 bonding bill for police accountability reform, noting it’s a long-term piece of legislation that will likely get addressed during the next regular session in January if it doesn’t get hashed out during Monday’s session.
Lueck was also skeptical that Walz would call either session if an extension of his emergency powers wasn’t up for a vote.
“There was a lot of things that got done on a huge bipartisan basis during that session,” Lueck said of the June session, “but the real reason the session had to occur, the governor would have lost his ability to extend his emergency powers. He has no legal grounds to continue his emergency powers. We have to be in session and at least one day. And then he gets another 30 day ticket.”
Lueck was also unsparing in his comments on pushes for law enforcement reform, noting he was in favor of dismantling aspects of binding arbitration so that cities can reprimand, fire or prosecute individual officers without incurring pressure from the police unions, but lambasted what he sees as a push to remove police officers’ rights to due process in many cases.
Like Lueck, Poston said during the June special session the Senate was able to formulate a host of bills that saw near unanimous support among Republican and DFL senators. However, he said, upon submission to the House, these bills were altered and added to in such a way they were dead on arrival. He expressed great disappointment in political gamesmanship that derailed many key pieces of legislation — primarily in the DFL, he said, but also among some Republicans.
“It was politics at its very worst,” Poston said. “We didn't accomplish very much. And for the most part that was because of political nonsense.”
That being said, Poston was optimistic that patience and wisdom would win out and the state of Minnesota would see the passage of a 2020 bonding bill and some needed law enforcement reform.