ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers closed out the special legislative session in the early hours Saturday, June 20, without substantial compromises on the issues that brought them to the Capitol.
At a moment when the state was grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and calls for criminal justice reform following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, legislators failed to compromise on aid spending for communities affected by COVID-19 and civil unrest stemming from Floyd's death. And they remained split on police accountability measures, which hundreds came to the Capitol to demand Friday afternoon.
Legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Walz in the wee hours Saturday expressed hope about the ongoing discussions and blew past the midnight deadline that Senate leaders had set for themselves. All the while debate about the priority legislation took place behind closed doors at the Capitol, which is closed to the public. And the GOP-controlled Senate and DFL-led House of Representatives largely held the line on positions they'd set on police accountability legislation.
Tensions boiled over onto the Senate floor just before 6 a.m. as Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, called for an end to the special session after "arm-twisting" from the governor's office overnight. He said work could continue and lawmakers could return for additional special sessions once deals in the divided Legislature had been made and signed.
"I'm frustrated this morning because I thought that we were going to do some things together," Gazelka said. "I actually thought we were going to get something done until late late last night. And we're not days away from some of the requests that the House wanted, we are a session away."
Democrats tried to block the move to end the special session but fell short Saturday. And members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus urged leaders to stay in session and continue their work after taking a recess to reset the table.
"What we're doing right now is absolutely irresponsible," Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, D-Minneapolis, said. "I don't know if you forgot, but on May 25, George Floyd was killed by the police. We had an opportunity to do significant criminal justice reform and we walk away from that responsibility."
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck while Floyd was handcuffed and face down on the ground following his arrest over alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill. A bystander video of the incident showed Floyd saying he couldn't breathe, urging Chauvin to stop and calling for his mother before he lost consciousness.
The graphic video of the incident spurred protests in Minnesota and around the world. And the movements have fueled calls for significant criminal justice reform. But lawmakers weren't able to advance to the governor's desk any legislation on police accountability, banning chokeholds or rewriting police training standards, despite bipartisan agreement in some areas.
Even before the overnight standoff at the Capitol, legislative leaders said work had stalled out on a bonding bill and tax bill. And Republicans said House Democrats effectively planted a "poison pill" in a proposal to allocate federal CARES Act funds to cities and counties when they tacked on Walz's supplemental budget to the bill. It had already passed the Senate without it.
And an offer and counteroffer exchanged on policing law reforms showed Republicans and Democrats still had a sizeable gap to close between their plans.
Walz in the early hours Saturday told reporters that a failure to pass the policing bills a day after Juneteenth, an annual celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, would be unacceptable to Minnesotans.
“I think not getting it done, having what we’ve been through with COVID and the murder of George Floyd and then, of course, all the unrest, to simply not do that right now, I just think leaves Minnesotans with a sense of that unease where it did feel like we were coming back to some normal,” Walz told reporters around 2 a.m. “I think leaving would be exactly the wrong thing.”
House leaders said the Senate's move to adjourn wouldn't "derail" efforts to pass police accountability measures this summer.
"This moment in history calls upon us to deliver transformative policy to further racial justice," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said in a news release. "There is nothing more pressing than the need to change law and policy so that it values and protects the lives of Black, Indigenous, and people of color in Minnesota."
Local government leaders said the move to leave town as Minnesotans counted on lawmakers for several pieces of aid legislation represented a partisan failure.
“The special session was a train wreck. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn and recent civil unrest, Minnesotans need strong state leadership at the Legislature now more than ever. Instead, we got arbitrary deadlines, broken deals and partisan battles," Audrey Nelsen, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said. “There is plenty of blame to go around for this disastrous special session. The people of Minnesota deserve better."
Labor unions and local communities that had been counting on the Legislature to greenlight construction projects around the state also expressed anger toward lawmakers.
“Adjourning the special session without passing an infrastructure bill is unacceptable. This is a devastating outcome for working Minnesotans," Joel Smith, president and business manager of the labor union LIUNA Minnesota & North Dakota, said. “We are disappointed Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and the Senate Republican Caucus unnecessarily chose to end without getting the job done."
Legislative leaders and the governor said they could return for additional special sessions and planned to continue negotiations on the police accountability measures, a bonding bill, a tax bill and a plan for spending federal COVID-19 aid.