Minnesota lawmakers OK hands-free bill; Walz to sign

Minnesota lawmakers gave final approval to a bill banning drivers from using cell phones except in hands-free mode, and Gov. Tim Walz said he will sign the measure into law on Friday.

Lawmakers passed the bill just before leaving the Capitol for their weeklong Easter/Passover break, while several other major issues are languishing.

The breakthrough on hands-free legislation comes more than a decade after it was first proposed. Lawmakers have credited family members of distracted driving victims for pushing the issue over the finish line this year.

“We finally saw an opportunity to complete this quest. We got it done,” said state Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, who authored the bill. “To put it as simply as I can: This bill will save lives.”

Walz has scheduled a 10 a.m. ceremony to sign the bill in his reception room at the Capitol.

The law will take effect Aug. 1, and those caught holding their phones while driving will face a $50 fine, with repeat offenders looking at a $275 ticket. The State Patrol is planning a public campaign to raise awareness before the law takes effect.

“It’s education that is most important, because enforcement is stopping someone who is doing this really dangerous activity. But education is where people will avoid it altogether,” said state Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan who has long supported hands-free driving legislation.

The Senate had the final vote, passing the legislation 48-12. The House voted in a similarly overwhelming fashion earlier in the week, after lawmakers on a conference committee hammered out their differences on the bill.

Other priorities remain

Other major issues await lawmakers when they return from their spring break, and they’ll have four short weeks to make decisions.

House and Senate negotiators canceled a conference committee this week, unable to strike a deal slapping new fees on drug companies over the opioid crisis.

About the only thing the two chambers agree on is the need to raise $20 million to fund treatment and prevention efforts. The Senate’s lead author, state Sen. Julie Rosen, said the disagreement centers around three main issues: which companies should pay the fee, whether to cut back the fee if Minnesota wins a major settlement with one of the drug companies it’s suing, and how to spend the money.

While the House has proposed the new fees on opioid manufacturers and distributors, the Senate’s bill would impose the fee on the pharmaceutical industry at large.

The Senate’s version calls for rolling back the new fees if Minnesota gets a settlement of $20 million or more, and many Democrats oppose the sunset.

“There are significant differences that have become apparent between the House and Senate,” said Rosen, R-Vernon Center, who said lawmakers would return to the negotiating table after their spring break. “I believe the governor and both bodies want to get done something done with opioids this year for sure.”

Other, more partisan, issues also remain.

Democratic leaders criticized their Republican counterparts for not considering several of their priorities, including an expansion of the state-run MinnesotaCare health insurance program and providing paid family leave to workers.

“There’s just a whole range of issues that Democrats are bringing, Gov. Walz is bringing, the House DFL caucus is bringing, and if the Senate won’t even engage in the discussion, it’s very difficult to have a productive negotiation heading toward the end of session,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

But Winkler’s counterpart in the Republican-controlled Senate, Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, said his caucus opposes those bills.

“Our responsibility is to pass a two-year budget. That’s what we want to focus on. Some of these things are just going to drift off on both sides. That’s how it works around here,” said Gazelka, R-Nisswa.