Public safety in focus as House, Senate advance competing plans

Minnesota lawmakers are headed toward tough end-of-session negotiations over crime prevention as the House and Senate approve vastly different proposals this week.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 48-19 Monday to pass a $200 million public safety package that includes police recruiting and retention bonuses, toughens penalties for carjacking and fleeing police, and public databases for judges and prosecutors who don't act as GOP lawmakers say they should.

Meanwhile, the DFL-led House is scheduled to vote Friday on its own $200 million proposal that includes significantly less new money for police, instead spending heavily on community-based initiatives.

"We’re open to those conversations, but our approach is very simple: more cops, tough on crime," Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, told reporters about the House's approach.

It's an election year, and perhaps no issue is more politically potent than crime. Some lawmakers in competitive suburban districts have urged a compromise on public safety legislation, while others appear ready to make their case to the voters this fall.

Violent crime has increased across Minnesota in recent years, Much of the focus has been on Minneapolis and St. Paul, which are dealing with smaller police forces because of retirements.

The Senate's omnibus bills offer a combined $113 million for police recruiting and retention.

Senate Democrats said the GOP approach will put more people in prison without addressing the root causes of increasing crime.

"I think every member here understands that there is an urgency and a problem and Minnesotans want us to act – to really act," said Senate DFL Leader Melisa Lopez Franzen, DFL-Edina.

GOP members, frustrated with what they see as a lax approach to repeat offenders in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, are calling for the creation of a public database to track prosecutors who don't charge crime suspects when there is probable case. Prosecutors have opposed the measure.

The bill also includes a database to call out judges who impose lighter than average sentences, a process known as downward departure.

"Yeah, there may be some prosecutors who think it’s an undue burden. It’s time to let the public know what’s really going on," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove.  

The House DFL proposal doesn't include either database. It includes tens of millions of dollars in grant money for nonprofit violence interrupters, mental health co-responders, and other initiatives. A portion of the overall funding would be made available for police.

The Senate bill doesn't include any money for nonprofit groups.

There are a few areas of agreement. One such area is on body worn cameras, which are still not standard equipment in many outstate agencies. There is also bipartisan agreement to allow police to attach GPS tracking devices onto cars that are reported stolen by their owners.

Getting a bill to Gov. Tim Walz's desk will require end-of session negotiations. The session ends May 23.