ST. PAUL — A Minnesota House committee has pushed forward a version of Gov. Tim Walz’s $35 million SAFE Account proposal, but without Republican colleagues’ and law enforcement officers' blessings — setting up a fight on the floor, or more negotiating out of the public eye.
The Democratic-controlled House’s Ways and Means Committee passed its version of the bill by a 12-9 vote on Tuesday, Feb. 9, advancing it to the full House floor. Democrats on a partisan vote approved their own amendment to the bill, but shot down Republicans’, ushering criticisms from Republicans on the committee who said the majority was not working across party lines.
Meanwhile, law enforcement groups stand opposed to amending the bill, saying the Legislature should prioritize passing a "clean" bill.
Walz initially proposed the SAFE Account, in anticipation of social unrest during next month’s trial of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd in May 2020. Walz recommended legislators set aside $35 million in state dollars to help cover law enforcement mutual aid costs between police departments beyond the Twin Cities to keep the peace in the metro.
The state's three largest law enforcement organizations — the Police and Peace Officers, Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Associations — supported Walz's proposal in its original form, according to a spokesperson.
Republicans in the Senate, who hold the majority in that body, swiftly rejected Walz's proposal, but House Republicans appear willing to pass a bill: During Tuesday’s hearing, state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said his caucus recognizes that Chauvin’s trial is likely going to be “an international event, and so we prioritize public safety.”
Garofalo and his Republican House colleagues on Tuesday still rejected the latest version of the bill, though. Their sticking point is an amendment by Rep. Carlos Mariani, D-St. Paul, which tasked the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board to develop a model public assembly response policy.
Mariani at Tuesday’s hearing said his amendment was an attempt to balance public safety needs with First Amendment rights to protest. Last summer, he said, some nonviolent protesters’ rights were “horribly disrespected,” and his amendment was an attempt to hold law enforcement accountable for upholding rights to free speech.
Republicans on Tuesday night cited law enforcement groups’ opposition to Mariani’s amendment as reason for their own disapproval, and Mariani retorted that “they don't support it because it requires them to be held accountable to their own policies.”
“There's fractured support for this bill based on our law enforcement folks telling us that First Amendment rights don't matter. They’re wrong,” he said. “We as legislators should call them on that and remind them that they work for the people, that they are public servants just like we are. (...) We should be together on asserting the privacy of constitutional rights and keeping the public safe.”
Indeed, the three groups do not support the bill as amended. But Jeff Potts, the executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association and former Bloomington police chief, said his opposition is for a different reason: He doesn't want the bill getting bogged down by amendments, ultimately slowing its movement through the divided Legislature with less than one month until Chauvin's trial begins. In fact, he said doesn't support any amendments, because the need is that urgent.
"We understand the sensitivity of the issue and how adding a bunch of things to it is simply just going to slow this down," he said in a phone call Tuesday night after the hearing. "Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of time for that."
Potts said he is willing to discuss the issues put forth in both Democrats' and Republicans' amendments at a later point, but just not attached to the SAFE Account.
In an emailed statement Wednesday morning, the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association said they were "very disappointed" in Mariani's comments, which they said were "completely inaccurate to our position on this bill."
"Of course the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association supports an individual’s first amendment rights. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible," wrote Executive Director Bill Hutton on behalf of the association. "The women and men of Minnesota law enforcement swear an oath to protect these rights and take that oath very serious. They put their lives on the line each day to uphold these rights."
Hutton reiterated that the Sheriffs' Association supports Walz's bill, and "to suggest anything else for political gain is wrong."
Leslie Rosedahl, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said via email Tuesday night that all three organizations support Walz's proposal in its original form, and take issue with it now because of its amendments.
The bill is now moving on to the full House floor for a vote, where Garofalo said Republicans will keep pushing for their changes to the bill in order to support it. Ways and Means Chair Rep. Rena Moran, D-St. Paul, closed the hearing saying, "I know this can be a bipartisan bill and I believe we can work toward that end."
Contact Sarah Mearhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-790-4992.