Minnesota Capitol won’t spring back to normal in 2021

Published 4:51 am Wednesday, December 16, 2020

By Brian Bakst, Minnesota Public Radio News

Routine public access to the Minnesota Capitol and legislative proceedings will remain under restrictions into next year as officials weigh when to dismantle a fence and to conduct more business in person.

Both realities were disclosed Tuesday during a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Capitol Security, which is chaired by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and includes members of all three branches of state government.

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The panel was told the chain-link fence ringing the Capitol building since the tension following the killing of George Floyd in late May will stay in place indefinitely.

State officials say dozens of incidents of graffiti and vandalism have occurred since summer and they believe the fence has prevented even more damage to the 115-year-old building. Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said his agency has tracked credible threats and copycat incidents that have hit capitols in other states.

“At this time I am still charting intel information about folks that talk about defacing the Capitol as a tactic,” Harrington said. “Having the fence stay up while those threats continue, I think, is a prudent matter.”

Department of Administration Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis said the fence will be removed when officials see “a lower number of protests happening on the Capitol complex, lower numbers of vandalism happening on the Capitol complex. And we will work cooperatively with the Department of Public Safety to ensure that things happening here are safe for all people visiting the Capitol.”

Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the fence sends the wrong message about accessibility of government.

“We seem to be reacting in fear on so many different fronts, and yet I think the image of governing is getting a little bit clouded by a fence,” Limmer said.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said entry to the building has been curtailed as much by the coronavirus pandemic. He said it would be different if state leaders were operating as usual inside.

“The fence doesn’t really change anything except that it is symbolic and of course it is an unfortunate symbol but it’s still symbolic and not practical in terms of public access,” Winkler said. “At such time as when the House and Senate and governor’s office and other state officials begin conducting business in person again, the fence will need to be down so that the public can have customary access to the building.”

But that could be a ways off.

Restrictions on public participation in the Minnesota legislative process will spill into the 2021 regular session.

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed lawmaking largely into a virtual setting, with many representatives and senators voting by phone from their hometowns since April.

When the new session begins in January, the House will continue to hold most, if not all, of its committee hearings via the Internet. Even the opening day ceremony where members are sworn in could have a virtual flair in some cases although there is debate about whether that must happen in St. Paul.

“To the extent possible, the House will continue to operate remotely going forward and I anticipate that will be through the end of the 2021 session,” House Sergeant-at-Arms Bob Meyerson told the panel.

But the Senate has plans for a hybrid approach, according to Senate Secretary Cal Ludeman.

“Partial participation in person in a committee, probably by the chairman and others, as well as people and senators participating by what I’m calling an enhanced Zoom or a super Zoom environment with a Zoom master,” Ludeman said.

Both chambers will have some members in attendance for floor sessions but remote voting options will continue to be offered.

Members of the public who come to the Capitol to view floor sessions from the few available seats in the gallery must have an official escort while in the building.

That means a lack of rallies and spontaneous testimony on contentious matters. Instead, arrangements to weigh in will be made in advance and physical attendance by the public will be severely restricted.

Lawmakers said they’ll narrow their agenda next year but they still must pass a new two-year budget that could reach $50 billion.

Flanagan said the setting will make for a noticeable difference.

“Everything we love about it — the waves of smiles as we pass each other in the tunnels, the roar of the citizen lobby days in the rotunda and making impassioned speeches on the chamber floors before a gallery of really eager onlookers,” she said, “And we know the Capitol certainly doesn’t look like that and won’t look like how it normally does.”