Prince estate bill stalls for year at Legislature

Updated 5:35 p.m.

Minnesota lawmakers hit the brakes Wednesday on a fast-moving bill to grant added protections to Prince's estate, with one of its sponsors declaring it stalled for the year.

The Senate Rules Committee pushed the measure back to a judiciary panel for further debate instead of sending it to the Senate floor for a final vote. The bill narrowly survived being scrapped on the spot on a 6-4 vote.

That action came just a couple days after it was dramatically altered in an attempt to give comfort to legislators uneasy with the idea of making such a change on short notice and tied so closely to one person. The goal is to head off attempts to profit from Prince's estate by using his image on merchandise or voice and name in commercial pitches.

Current law is murky at best as to whether Prince's heirs could sue over misuse, and some lawmakers said allowing it would open a bigger door than supporters have let on.

"This bill creates an exception for one person on one specific kind of tort and that's commercialization of an image," said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. "And it's simply not ready to go forward because the bill was introduced so late in the session."

Prince died April 21 without any known will. The bill was introduced last week and sped through a House committee, setting it up for a final vote in that chamber any day.

Senators from both parties voiced hesitation about giving after-death rights to sue over misuse of Prince's name and likeness, as administrators of his estate proposed.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it's not his intent to schedule a hearing this year unless advocates of the bill can find a route to deal with the controversial aspects that have come to light.

"If they think they can find a comparatively easy path forward for it, I am willing to do it," said Latz. "I would be surprised if they could find one though."

Later Wednesday, Republican Rep. Joe Hoppe of Chaska said he won't put the companion House bill to a vote this year given the Senate action and lingering doubts.

"I think there are too many questions and we want to get it right," Hoppe said. "And it's better to do it right and we can wait until January and hopefully come up, by the time session rolls around in January, we'll have a good product that everyone's OK with."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, had warned backers he's unlikely to accommodate a protracted floor debate on the Prince bill given the issue's complexity as the session speeds toward adjournment.

"I don't have six or eight hours on the floor for us all to establish legislative intent for what we are going to do," Bakk said. "Starting somewhere after today we have a bonding bill, a tax bill, a supplemental budget bill that are really the nuts and bolts of the session that most of us want to be able to accomplish."

Those involved in the administration of the Prince estate, led by Bremer Trust, were assessing the situation after the Senate Rules Committee action.

A decision will be made soon about how to move ahead, said Joel Leviton, a Minneapolis attorney who helped shape the legislation on Bremer’s behalf.

“At this point we’re going to reconsider our options,” Leviton said. “We always thought this was an issue better suited for the Legislature than the courts, and we certainly understand that the right of publicity is a new issue for many people.”

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