by CHRIS ROGERS
Local lawmakers tried but failed to revoke Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19 emergency powers in a recent special legislative session. The session’s main accomplishment, a compromise police accountability act, passed with votes from most Winona-area lawmakers. Meanwhile, a $1.8-billion bonding bill would have given the city of Winona $2 million for its proposed riverfront bike path, Winona County $750,000 toward its new jail, $8 million for the National Eagle Center’s expansion, and hundreds of millions for road, utility, and infrastructure projects across the state. It failed to win enough House Republican votes.
Local lawmakers all voted to end Walz’s powers
Sen. Jeremy Miller (R-Winona), Sen. Mike Goggin (R-Red Wing), Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona), and Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) all voted to revoke the governor’s emergency powers, which Walz has used to issue a mask requirement and enforce social distancing rules on businesses and organizations.
“The constitution says that the legislature writes the law and the governor signs or vetoes. What we have here is the governor writing the law,” Drazkowski said. “When the governor is writing the law and then the legislature is in the position of either allowing it to happen or vetoing it, something is upside down or inside out,” he argued.
In order to act quickly in a crisis, the legislature wrote laws giving the governor the authority to issue sweeping executive orders during a disaster or emergency. Drazkowski is a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit challenging that law and the governor’s orders as unconstitutional.
A vote to revoke the governor’s powers passed 36-31 in the Republican-controlled Senate, but failed 63-70 in the DFL-run House, where Pelowski was one of a handful of Democrats to vote for stripping Walz’s emergency authority.
“I think whenever you have a very close group of people or an individual making those decisions, you block out some things that should be considered or altered,” Pelowski said. “We saw that with the early orders, that, ‘Yeah, you can go to a big box store, but you can’t go to the small stores downtown.’” Wearing a mask is a simple thing everyone should be doing, but for rules about when and how businesses and schools can open, Minnesota is such a large, geographically diverse state, “There’s got to be some flexibility,” he argued. “I think Walz has acted as fairly as he can, but I would like to see more legislative input,” Pelowski continued. “That may not be something every legislator wants. It’s a lot easier to blame Walz.”
Bonding bill dies on the vine
House Republicans, including Drazkowski, cast decisive votes against the $1.8-billion bonding bill that would funded infrastructure projects locally and across the state.
Minnesota is already staring down a projected deficit of $2.4 billion, and the debt payments on borrowing another $1.8 billion would just make that worse, Drazkowski said in an interview. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea to borrow and continue to borrow and spend our way to prosperity, especially when you’re in a hole,” he stated. “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.”
The bonding bill included a long hoped-for project in Drazkowski’s district: $3 million for the city of Zumbrota to reconstruct Jefferson Drive. There were worthy projects in the bill, including that one, Drazkowski stated. “I certainly had regrets about not being able to have those go through, but the size and scope of everything from soups to nuts in this bonding bill … Looking at the bill as a whole it gives a different picture than if you look at different projects,” he said.
“The Senate was ready to pass a bonding bill,” Pelowski pointed out. Indeed, Senate Republicans had encouraged their colleagues in the House to pass a bonding bill, but House Republican voted against it, saying they had been cut out of negotiations between the House DFL majority and the Senate GOP majority. “If it’s true, that they were left out, it was a big mistake,” Pelowski said.
With a supermajority required to pass, the bonding bill also gave House Republicans a rare moment of leverage, and some GOP leaders conditioned passing a bonding bill on revoking Walz’s emergency powers. That was a foolish strategy, Drazkowski said. “The reality is, if [Republican Minority Leader Kurt] Daudt was able to bargain away $1.7 billion in bonding in return for the governor giving him some or all of his powers, the reality is that the law is written in a way that he could resume those powers the next minute and do it all over again,” Drazkowski stated.
Under state law, the legislature will meet again this fall to consider whether to allow Walz’s emergency powers to continue, meaning it could take another stab at passing a bonding bill. While some statehouse watchers have discounted the chances of that happening, Pelowski was cautiously optimistic. “We have a number of legislators on the Republican side that are facing primaries, and once the primaries are passed, they’ll be much more receptive to compromise,” he said.
Compromise police reform passes
Miller, Goggin, and Pelowski voted for the Minnesota Police Accountability Act, a raft of police reforms including restrictions on the use of chokeholds and deadly force, requirements for de-escalation training, stronger protocols for reporting and investigating serious use of force, and incremental changes to the systems responsible for licensing police officers and settling disputes between officers and police departments that try to fire or discipline officers. Drazkowski was one of 29 members — out of 134 total — who voted against the bill in the House.
“The pain, the frustration, the trauma, and the righteous anger our communities have experienced over and over and over again highlights that the status quo simply isn’t working,” one of the bill’s authors, Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul), said. “So that’s why we’re here this evening. Our Black and brown Minnesotans deserve justice and accountability.” She added, “It’s a beginning, not an end.”
A more far-reaching bill was proposed in June in the wake of the alleged murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers and a reckoning over racism in Minnesota, but it did not succeed in the Senate.
The new version removed a felon-voting-rights provision Drazkowski had previously described as a nonstarter and included measures he previously said he supported, including banning chokeholds except in self-defense and partial reforms to the arbitration system that sometimes allows fired officers and other government employees to get their jobs back.
“This bill was much better than the last one,” Drazkowski said. “The arbitration reform didn’t come close to going far enough, but that’s not a reason to vote against it.” Drazskowski said he voted against the bill because of training requirements that, he said, would have put another unfunded mandate on rural law enforcement agencies. “They put some additional training requirements in there that affected our rural police departments and basically took a Minneapolis problem and conditioned it for the whole state,” he argued.
The act requires all officers, every three years, to receive six hours of mental health crisis intervention training, including de-escalation techniques, and four hours of training on autism. The bill included some funding to reimburse local departments for the cost of training.
“Our police officers in Goodview and my district, they don’t need these additional mandates,” Drazkowski stated. “They’re operating fine without them, and we need to leave them alone. Allow them to do their job and protect their community.”
“I think it was a good compromise given the disparities between the two parties,” Pelowski said. However, lawmakers had little time to read this bill before they had to vote on it, he reported. “There’s got to be a more systematic way of doing this and a fair way of doing this so the entire state can see what we’re doing here and so that legislators would have a few minutes to see what we’re going to be voting on,” he said.
The act is unlikely to satisfy advocates of drastic change, Pelowski added. To those citizens, he advised that many police reforms can be carried out on a local level by city and county governments. “Go to the City Council and the mayor and work with them to make the changes,” Pelowski said.