Minnesota lawmakers hit gridlock on police accountability bills

Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota lawmakers turned to partisan squabbling Thursday as a self-imposed deadline neared for passing police accountability bills in the wake of George Floyd's death.

Floyd, an unarmed black man, died May 25 when a now-fired Minneapolis police officer held him to the ground by pushing his knee into Floyd's neck for several minutes. The incident sparked international outrage and calls for action, which have been met with gridlock at the Minnesota Capitol.

Just after 1 a.m. Friday, the House voted 71-59 almost entirely along party lines to pass Democrats' criminal justice and police accountability bills. Republicans who control the Senate passed more limited measures earlier in the week and vow to adjourn Friday, which is Juneteenth, the holiday that marks the end of slavery in the U.S.

"If destiny and history is not raining down on Minnesota today and tomorrow, I don’t know what is," Gov. Tim Walz told reporters at a news conference. "I would consider it a total failure if we leave tomorrow."

Walz declined to say whether he would immediately call lawmakers back for another special session if lawmakers fail to act on police accountability. Walz and House Democrats did not agree to the GOP's deadline but have acknowledged it essentially shuts down the session if the Senate leaves.

The first-term Democratic governor and Senate Republicans held dueling news conference blaming each other for the impasse Thursday,

"They want to imply that we’re doing nothing and that flat-out is not true and, frankly, dishonesty is not good for Minnesota," said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. 

The House DFL has proposed a series of roughly 20 changes, including giving power to the attorney general to investigate all police killings. Democrats are also seeking to overhaul the police arbitration process, allow cities to force police officers to live within city limits, and restore voting rights for convicted felons after leaving prison.

Senate Republicans have rejected many of the DFL's proposals, though they have agreed to limited changes including a ban on chokeholds, a duty to intervene when an officer sees inappropriate force, and an extension of funding for police training. The bills passed after an emotional overnight debate in which the five senators of color said Republicans had never consulted with them on the proposals.

"When I saw the senators’ bills, I was insulted," said state Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul. "It has no accountability. No systemic change."

But Senate Republicans said they would not agree to the DFL's measures.

"If they load up all of those bills with issues they know we don’t support, it’s going to kill every one of those bills," Gazelka said.

The gridlock has also stalled movement on several other issues. Relief money for Minneapolis and St. Paul businesses damaged in the recent unrest has gone nowhere. A bill providing $841 million in federal money to cities and counties to deal with the coronavirus is held up because of Walz's concerns about how the money was calculated. A construction bill for road and bridge projects across the state has moved nowhere amid concerns about its costs.

But the police accountability bills have dominated the conversation after Floyd's death and the resulting unrest.

"The business as usual and the weak sauce legislation to get out of town and pretend you’ve made change ends now," Walz said.