Israel bill in Minnesota House hits an international nerve
A bill that would ban state contractors from boycotting Israel is advancing in the Minnesota House of Representatives despite opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union and a protest movement against the alleged human rights violations of...
A bill that would ban state contractors from boycotting Israel is advancing in the Minnesota House of Representatives despite opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union and a protest movement against the alleged human rights violations of Israel.
Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, introduced the bill Jan. 23, and the House's Government Finance committee discussed it Wednesday afternoon.
Previously, Kresha equated boycotting Israel with discrimination against Jews as a whole. He said 16 other states passed similar language, and that it also was the policy of the Obama administration to not do business with companies that boycotted Israel.
During a phone press conference last week, Gov. Mark Dayton said the state's Department of Administration had found no companies that contracted with the government and that were also boycotting Israel.
"So, this is really a debate about foreign affairs and not about something that directly affects Minnesota," Dayton said.
Although he added that Kresha's bill was a "double negative" he said he would support it.
The Minnesota branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, however, said in a letter that Kresha's bill, House File 400, violates both the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions.
"HF 400 would require persons who wish to boycott Israel as a means of political expression to sacrifice their First Amendment rights in order to do business with the state of Minnesota," the group wrote.
The ACLU went on to assert the bill specifically targeted the "Boycott, Divest, Sanctions" movement, which opposes the actions of the Israeli government in relation to its conflict with Palestine.
"While the ACLU-MN takes no position on the BDS movement, we oppose bills like these that would require state and local governments to deny benefits (such as contracts) in retaliation for the exercise of freedom of expression and association," the letter said. "They place unconstitutional conditions on the exercise of constitutional rights."
The House's Government Finance Committee voted 10-6 to advance the bill to its third committee hearing, Ways and Means. If H.F. 400 passes there, it will head to the House floor for a vote by the whole body.
Before the committee voted Wednesday to approve the bill, Kresha said the proposal's objective was simply to prevent Minnesota's government from subsidizing discrimination against Israeli companies. He compared it to the provision in the Women's Economic Security Act, passed into law by the Legislature, that prevented discrimination on the basis of gender.
Ethan Roberts, director of government affairs for the local branch of the Jewish Community Relations Council, testified in favor of the bill by reiterating that it was bipartisan response to the "economic warfare" of the BDS moment.
"The goal of the BDS movement is nothing short of the destruction of the state of Israel," he said.
He said the bill was in fact constitutional, and that his group had been in conversation with the ACLU beginning Tuesday. They were working on compromise bill language that would be ready in time for the bill's next committee hearing, he said.
Several BDS supporters attempted to differentiate their opposition to the Israeli government with an opposition to Jews, and compared BDS to peaceful nonviolent protest actions throughout American history, such as those carried out by the African-American civil rights movement.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, a Muslim and Somali-American, asked a Palestinian pro-BDS testifier to spell out the difference between the Israeli government and Jewish people. The testifier was a young woman who said she had received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. In response to Omar's prompting, she said she was against the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu's government that violated human rights, not Jewish people.
"The conflict was never about religion pre-1948," she said. "My grandma is from ... Israel. She told me a story about living with Jews in peace before 1948 and the establishment of the Israeli state."
The cost in money and time
The responsibility of actually implementing Kresha's bill falls to the state Department of Administration, which handles Minnesota's contracts with private companies.
Matt Scherer, the legislative director for the department, cautioned the bill would add one more contracting rule to an already 43-page list companies have to navigate when seeking to do business with the state. He also said adding rules contractors have to comply with can have the effect of reducing competition among them, and increasing the risk of "bid protest." Scherer explained bid protests are when the losers of a bidding process to get a state contract say that the winner violates contracting rules.
The bill's "fiscal note,"or estimate of how much a particular piece of legislation will cost once it's put into place, said H.F. 400 would mean an extra $7,000 being spent for the 2017-2018 biennium. Kresha amended his bill Wednesday so the Department of Administration is required to use only its existing budget as appropriated by the Legislature, and they don't get extra money in order to implement H.F. 400.
During an interview Thursday, Kresha said the fact his bill would cost money didn't change his position.
"If the Department (of Administration) thinks it's going to cost money to implement this, they're going to make that argument," he said. "However, when other bills have come up, they have not raised that concern. So, it is what it is."
Kresha said requiring the department to use its existing budget didn't mean they would have to cut something else to account for the added cost of his bill-they would simply have to allocate resources differently. It was the department's job to check for discrimination among potential contractors, and the rule in H.F. 400 barring contractors from Israel boycotts was doing just that, Kresha said. In addition, his bill didn't take away people's right to boycott Israel, he said-it simply prevented the state from doing business with them.
"People are going to vote on this, and they're going to choose whether they support Israel or not," he said.