It was a busy week at the Capitol. Here are some of the highlights — from fireworks to whiskey plates:
DFL Gov. Tim Walz says he would probably sign a bill to expand legalized fireworks in the state if it reaches his desk this year. That’s a change from the previous governor, Mark Dayton, who firmly opposed the proposal year after year.
“My arguments have been made on certain things that prohibition doesn’t necessarily always work,” Walz said, noting a lot of Minnesotans buy fireworks in Wisconsin.
Currently, only novelty fireworks, such as sparklers, are legal here. Lawmakers are considering legislation to allow audible and aerial fireworks, such as bottle rockets.
“If you follow instructions, that minimizes the risk. And I believe many of these retailers have safety videos available for people to follow, so they can learn how to use them correctly,” said Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, the bill’s sponsor.
Firefighters remain strongly opposed to the proposed expansion. The Senate judiciary and public safety committee narrowly advanced a fireworks bill on Wednesday.
Minnesota first lady Gwen Walz on Wednesday called for a rework of the state’s pardon laws to give more people a shot at a clean slate.
Walz told a rally in support of sentencing revisions, voting rights restoration and other criminal justice changes that Minnesota grants too few pardons. A three-member board that includes the governor meets twice a year to consider pardons, which require a unanimous vote.
“If you need a pardon, apply. Those numbers have been going down. Apply. Flood the zone. Because what that does is fully restores people to our community. And we need each and every person in this state in our community. Rights restored, active, engaged,” Walz said.
Gov. Tim Walz has said Minnesota’s system is dated and needs to be revised. In Minnesota, a pardon comes after somebody has completed a sentence and effectively wipes a conviction off a record.
A bill to remove antiquated references to slavery in the Minnesota Constitution is moving through the Minnesota Legislature. Slavery has long been prohibited by federal law, but Minnesota’s founding document still technically allows it as punishment for a crime.
“As the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, this issue is personal to me. It’s a matter of human dignity. It’s unacceptable for our state to sanction slavery or involuntary servitude under any circumstance. It’s time for this language to be eliminated,” said Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, the bill’s author.
Moran and other lawmakers want the language struck from the constitution altogether and will ask voters to approve the change.
Felon voting rights
People with criminal pasts have renewed their push for Minnesota law changes that would allow them to regain their right to vote sooner.
The felon voting rights initiative is among the criminal justice measures being pursued by the Second Chance Coalition. The organization also hopes lawmakers will make driver’s license reinstatement easier, consider alternatives to traffic fines and make pardons easier to attain.
Marlin Meszaros served prison time for drug offenses but remains on probation for six more years — so, he can’t vote.
“Not having the right to vote and living in society — the two things just don’t add up. If I’m trusted to live out here, I should be trusted to step in a voting booth and say so in who represents me. It’s just as simple as that,” he said at a Capitol rally this week.
The voting rights restoration bill has significant support in the DFL-controlled House, but more resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Minnesota lawmakers are considering a change in state law to help speed up the wait for driving tests.
The Senate transportation committee heard a bill Wednesday that would allow people other than state employees to conduct behind-the-wheel exams.
People applying for driver’s licenses in the metro area have faced long waits to take road tests. Some travel hundreds of miles for exam openings.
“It’s important to all of us working adults and all the young drivers of Minnesota that we do have this process streamlined, and they don’t have to wait longer than two weeks to get their driver’s license test taken, and perhaps taken again and again. Nobody wants to drive more than 30 miles to take their driver’s test,” said Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point.
A bipartisan group of legislators is attempting to curb those black-and-white license plates that some drunken driving offenders must put on their cars.
A newly introduced House bill would allow offenders to avoid the specialized plates that start with a “W” — sometimes called whiskey plates — if they use an ignition lock device instead.
Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said the plates stigmatize people with addiction problems.
“We need to do a better job of getting rid of the whiskey plates in Minnesota. There’s no reason we need to publicly shame anybody anymore with the invention of the interlock system,” he said.
The plates alert law enforcement and other drivers to someone who has been convicted of certain DWI offenses. But courts have ruled that officers need to spot a traffic violation to stop a car and can’t do so solely on the basis of the plates.
Farmer mental health
State officials told lawmakers on Thursday that there's a continued need to fund mental health programs for farmers.
Rural mental health specialist Monica McConkey said stress is leading to more alcohol abuse and relationship issues. She said sometimes stress leaves farmers unable to make decisions or deal with problems.
"They don't open their mail, when the mail comes, especially if it's from a regulatory agency, it goes on the pile on the desk. So, I've even been on the phone with farmers and they've opened their mail with me on the phone, and we just kind of talk through it,” she said.
McConkey said she hears directly from farmers and from concerned family members.
Meg Moynihan, a senior adviser with Department of Agriculture, told lawmakers that a series of six suicide prevention training sessions held around the state were filled to capacity. The department added three trainings and still has a waiting list.
More than 233 people whose work is related to agriculture have been trained in suicide prevention, she said.
"And we know to date at least four of them since the training did a suicide prevention intervention and intervened in a situation where somebody was at risk of suicide,” she said. “That kind of shook me to my core.”
Clean car rule
The Walz plan would create a rule managed by the state Pollution Control Agency designed to make more low- and zero-emission vehicles available for sale in Minnesota.
Rural Republican state senators railed against the plan, which follows California’s lead, arguing it should have gone through the Legislature instead of an agency rule-making process. They questioned the impact the rule might have on human health, which it is intended to support, and climate change, the effects of which it is intended to help mitigate, and asserted it would raise the prices of cars and trucks sold in Minnesota.
"This is really circumventing the state of Minnesota, its citizens, and the Legislature,” Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, told Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop at a hearing Wednesday.
A Senate committee has cleared the way for Minnesota to receive federal funding to help the state's loons.
The federal government awarded Minnesota more than $6 million from its settlement with BP over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where many loons spend their winters.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency received about $1.2 million to encourage anglers to use lead-free fishing tackle.
"So many Minnesotans care very deeply about the environment, about water quality, about loons, that we already know that they're strongly in support of this effort. They just need a little bit of help to make that transition away from lead fishing tackle,” MPCA supervisor Kevin McDonald said.
One state senator had delayed the funding by requesting more information on the lead-free program. A Senate committee held a hearing earlier this week, and allowed the funding to proceed.
Carrol Henderson, a retired nongame wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota DNR, testified in support of the program.
"At least 100 to 200 loons per year are dying from lead poisoning when they pick up lead jigs or sinkers on lake bottoms. And when we passed around the pebbles, those show that the size of the pebbles they pick up and grind up with their fish are about the same size as the jigs and sinkers they're picking up on the bottom,” he said.
Prescription drug costs
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison released a report Wednesday on ways to lower prescription drug prices.
The report makes 14 recommendations for lowering prices through greater transparency in the prescription drug market and using public pressure to make drugs more affordable and accessible. Some life-saving drugs, including insulin would be imported on a trial basis. There would also be a crackdown on price gouging.
“When it comes to the high cost of prescription drugs, too many Minnesotans have told me that they’re having to choose between affording their lives and affording to live,” Ellison said.
Some of the recommendations need legislative action. Others can be done administratively. Ellison said his office will also continue several legal fights aimed at bringing down drug prices.
A Minnesota House panel advanced legislation on Thursday to address fare evasion and other problems on light rail transit.
But the measure approved by the House transportation committee on a voice vote is a watered-down version of an earlier bill. Under the new version, a Transit Riders Investment Program, or TRIP, would be established on a light rail only at a cost of $1 million. An earlier bill set up an ongoing program that also included buses.
Rep. Brad Tabke, DFL-Shakopee, said the plan is now for a six-month pilot program.
“We have TRIP personnel that will be working throughout the transit system and working to help make sure that all fares are being collected, make sure that code of conduct issues are being reported and handled appropriately,” he said.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, criticized the revised bill as a “dramatic rollback” from the original. He questioned how effective it would be in addressing known light rail problems.
GOP Senate tax cut plan
Republicans in the Minnesota Senate have outlined a package of tax cuts that they say would benefit everyone in the state.
The plan announced Thursday would use the projected $1.3 billion budget surplus and also create several ongoing budget obligations. It would lower income taxes, expand education tax credits and eliminate state taxes on Social Security Income.
“People come up here to the Legislature and almost all the time, what are the looking for? Money. We’re going to give it to them. We’re going to allow them to live their lives, empower them to do what they want, improve their communities, improve job growth, strengthen this economy, continue down the path we’ve been on for a few years,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, the chair of the Senate tax committee.
The plan is unlikely to get much attention in the DFL House. Walz has said he opposes the Social Security proposal and other costly tax cuts.
Minor political party status
Two minor political parties say they’ll field U.S. Senate candidates in Minnesota as they strive to attain major-party status after 2020.
DFL Sen. Tina Smith is running for another six-year term for the seat she’s held since 2018. Former Republican Rep. Jason Lewis is the front-runner for his party’s nomination.
But the chairs of the Independence Alliance Party and the Green Party say they’ll work to put candidates on the ballot, too. That could be critical if the race is close.
“One of the reasons we’re running a U.S. Senate candidate is to get major-party ballot status back. Without ballot access, it is a slog to go out and gather petition signatures,” said IP Chair Phil Fuehrer. He said the Senate race is the only statewide contest in the fall. Candidates who achieve at least 5 percent of the vote elevate their party’s status.
The head of the state’s Libertarian Party says it has no plans to put up a U.S. Senate candidate.
Libertarian Chair Chris Holbrook said Minnesota requires more signatures for minor party access. And its two-week petition period is shorter than neighboring states.
“We are a clear outlier. We are less than a dozen states left who have such rigid restrictions on running for office. We’re asking for the window to petition and file to be expanded. And we’re asking for the oath on these petitions to be altered,” Holbrook said.
Minnesota has four major parties whose candidates get automatic ballot access — the DFL and Republican parties plus two parties pushing for marijuana legalization.
MPR News reporters Tim Nelson, Dan Kraker, Dan Gunderson and Kirsti Marohn contributed to this story.