Daily Digest: Gun hearing draws big crowd

Good morning, and welcome to Thursday. State finance officials are set to release their latest forecast today, which will give lawmakers and the governor final numbers to work with as they set a new two-year state budget. First, here's the Digest.

1. Lots of people show up on both sides of gun issue. Democrats who control the Minnesota House are pressing forward with new gun legislation. The bills would require background checks for private party firearms transfers and set up procedures for police or family members to remove guns from people who are deemed dangerous. The measures face strong opposition from Republicans who have a majority in the state Senate. During a five-hour hearing Wednesday evening, a House committee advanced the background checks bill along party lines. The "red flag" measure is expected to get a vote Thursday. Supporters and opponents of the bills both came out in large numbers, filling the House committee room and an overflow space across the hall.Purchases of firearms from federally licensed dealers already require background checks. The current proposal would expand those checks to private firearms transfers in Minnesota. Both parties would have to fill out a form that includes the gun's serial number. Giving a gun to your sister, son or any other immediate family member would not require a background check. But giving one to your best friend would. Firearms enthusiasts say that would erode Minnesotans' Second Amendment rights. (MPR News)

2. Ellison gets an earful at listening session. Residents of Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood made it clear — they're glad to finally have an attorney general who looks like them. But that wasn't going to stop Minnesota's first black and first Muslim to hold the position from getting an earful. "We understand you've only been in the office for eight weeks, but we've been suffering for years," Fardowsa Mohamed told Keith Ellison during Wednesday night's public forum at the Brian Coyle Community Center. Mohamed demanded answers on what Ellison's office could do for East African immigrants, especially to curb racial and ethnic profiling and what she described as false suspicions that shadow the growing community. Ellison said he could not — and would not — arbitrarily dismiss cases under investigation. "But I can make sure it's not a persecution," he said. More than 150 people flocked to the Coyle Center's gymnasium for a chance to air a wide range of grievances in a freewheeling and sometimes chaotic session with Ellison and other local leaders. (Star Tribune)

3. Legislature may give schools a break on snow days. School districts could soon get clearance from the Minnesota Legislature to shorten their academic calendars amid an extraordinary winter of class cancellations. A bill that key lawmakers have put on the fast track would give district boards the ability to vote to have fewer than the state-required 165 days of instruction this year. It was approved Wednesday by the Senate's education panel and sent to the floor for a vote soon. Lawmakers are hoping to move the bill as quickly as possible to provide needed clarity to districts well before the end of session in May and the end of the school year in June. Districts would be required to report to the state how many days they held class during the year. "Timing is of the essence," said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. Some schools are adding minutes to each day to get to their yearly academic time while others are considering shorter breaks or summer add-ons. (MPR News)

4. State's technology agency could be doing better, report says. Minnesota government’s chief IT agency, MNIT, has not provided proper oversight of state software development and it’s unclear to some other government agencies the services it is supposed to provide to them. These findings were released Wednesday in a report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor. It’s a review that was commissioned a year ago, amidst controversy over technical problems with the rollout of a licensing and registration system known as MNLARS. According to the report, the agency’s oversight of software projects like MNLARS has been “inconsistent” and not rigorous enough, sometimes in violation of state law. “State law requires the MNIT commissioner to approve projects before they are undertaken, but such sign-offs have not occurred,” the report found. “MNIT has not developed standards for the architecture of state IT systems, nor for the independent audits required for large IT projects. In addition, MNIT has not always evaluated the performance of its professional/technical contractors, contrary to state requirements.” (MPR News)

5. Undercover cops will police smoking on LRT lines. In 2018, Metro Transit received some 1,800 complaints about people smoking tobacco, marijuana and e-cigarettes on trains and LRT platforms. The problem appeared to flare up toward the close of the year and continued into 2019 — the transit agency has fielded nearly 600 complaints so far this year. Beginning this week, Metro Transit police officers in plainclothes have surreptitiously parked themselves on both Green and Blue Line trains to ferret out smokers. “It’s not going to be every day or all day long,” said A.J. Olson, Metro Transit’s interim police chief. Undercover officers will check out trains based on days and times determined to be popular among smokers — generally midafternoon and on the Green Line, which links the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But the police-led crackdown has drawn concern from transit advocacy groups. Jessica Treat, executive director of Move Minnesota, worries people of color will be profiled in the enforcement effort. “Yes, smoking on the train is not a good thing, but is policing the way to handle it?” she asked. Plus, Treat said, people cited for smoking may get caught up in the criminal justice system for a minor offense. (Star Tribune)

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