Minnesota lawmakers return from break to uncertainty after DFL lawmaker’s arrest

Published 6:17 am Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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By Dana Ferguson and Clay Masters, Minnesota Public Radio News

Serious criminal charges against a DFL state lawmaker after her arrest this week have put the power dynamic and prospects in question for the last four weeks of the legislative session.

Sen. Nicole Mitchell was arrested early Monday for allegedly breaking into the Detroit Lakes home of her stepmother. Police at the scene said the Woodbury legislator told them she wanted to retrieve her late father’s ashes, photos, a flannel shirt and other items of sentimental value from the home but her stepmother wouldn’t speak with her, according to a criminal complaint.

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Following the release of the complaint, Senate leaders split over the path forward and whether Mitchell, the 34th Senate DFL vote in a one-seat majority, should keep her seat.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy called for due process for Mitchell while calling the allegations “upsetting.” Meanwhile, GOP Minority Leader Mark Johnson said she should resign immediately.

Other lawmakers, particularly DFLers, could be put on record soon over Mitchell and her ability to participate in the session’s finale.

Mitchell’s vote is, on paper, the deciding factor in what makes it through the DFL-led Capitol and what doesn’t when matters break along party lines.

With a potential 33-33 tie in the chamber — and no tiebreaker from any other official as is the case with the vice president in the U.S. Senate — DFL priorities like gun restrictions, an equal rights amendment with protections for abortion and gender care and several budget revisions could stall.

As lawmakers return from their Passover break on Wednesday, here’s a recap of what is known and what might develop.

What happened?

In a criminal complaint released Tuesday, authorities allege that Mitchell engaged in first-degree burglary. According to the complaint, Mitchell entered her stepmother’s house in Detroit Lakes early on Monday morning through a window. She wore all black and carried a flashlight covered in a sock.

She is alleged to have entered the basement where she was looking for items of her deceased father’s — including his ashes. When her stepmother heard noise in the basement, she called the police.

Detroit Lakes police officers arrested Mitchell at the scene and she told them she wanted to grab the items because her stepmother wasn’t talking to her anymore.

A Becker County District Court judge granted Mitchell’s release from jail on Tuesday with conditions that she abide by conditions including having no contact with the victim, and not leaving the state without written court approval. The judge also said a restraining order was issued Tuesday. Bail without conditions was set at $40,000.

Upon her release, Mitchell posted on Facebook that a “private matter” became very public and it didn’t play out in the fashion alleged. Mitchell wrote that her stepmother was dealing with memory problems and paranoia. She said she drove there to “check on that family member.”

“I entered a home I have come and gone from countless times in the past 20 years, where my son even once had his own room,” Mitchell said. “Unfortunately, I startled this close relative, exacerbating paranoia and I was accused of stealing, which I absolutely deny.”

No one was home at the house when an MPR News reporter stopped in earlier Tuesday.

What does this mean for Senate operations?

It’s not entirely clear.

Lawmakers had been on Passover break. So when the gavel strikes at noon on Wednesday, the political ramifications could become apparent.

The Minnesota Senate retained a COVID-19 rule that allows for remote voting, which has been used by senators dealing with family or health situations. It has never been tested around a criminal proceeding and could lead to clashes if Mitchell tries to steer clear of the Capitol while still acting on bills.

Murphy issued a statement following the hearing that said these actions were “out of character” for Mitchell. She said that while Mitchell would have decisions to make, she should get due process.

“The allegations against Senator Mitchell are upsetting, for me and for anyone who has gotten to know and work with her,” Murphy said in a news release. “We believe in due process, and Senator Mitchell has the right to a full defense of her case in court. In the coming days and weeks, Senator Mitchell must also have serious and difficult conversations with her colleagues, constituents and family.”

Johnson said the charges were disturbing and suggest that Mitchell’s decision to break into the home was premeditated. He called on Mitchell to resign immediately.

“I understand the difficult situation her family is facing, however the actions taken by Sen. Mitchell are disturbing. The complaint released by the Becker County Attorney lays out the case of a person who took extensive preparation to burglarize a family member’s home,” Johnson said. “This behavior is unbecoming of a member of the Legislature and she needs to resign from the Senate immediately.”

The Minnesota Republican Party and other conservative groups have also called on Mitchell to resign her seat.

What do Senate rules say?

Senate rules state that members must “adhere to the highest level of ethical conduct as embodied in the Minnesota Constitution, state law and Senate rules.”

The rules also set up a process to call for a subcommittee on ethical conduct to launch an investigation and provide an advisory opinion about what consequences should be. That would take some time. But it could result in a call for Mitchell to be stripped of committee assignments or tougher penalties.

The rules also say that an ethics probe can be deferred if criminal proceedings are still ongoing, which is the case here. Mitchell’s next court hearing isn’t until June 10 — three weeks after the deadline for adjournment.

Ethics actions typically take weeks or months so a swift resolution would be unusual. Expulsion would take a two-thirds vote, which would be unlikely. It’s so rare that some of the last guidance around it comes from 1986.

What hangs in the balance?

A number of policy and finance bills could get detoured, and particularly anything with a more partisan slant.

A set of gun restrictions could be off the table this year if Mitchell is barred from voting or resigns. Gun owners groups have been urging her resignation following the arrest.

Efforts that would require insurance plans to cover the cost of abortion or gender affirming care could also face a tougher path forward, as could an effort to put an equal rights constitutional amendment before voters in a future election.

Several budget bills would likely have to be ditched or dramatically reshaped. Republicans would have far greater leverage to negotiate deals. Or DFL leaders could significantly curtail the agenda as they wind up the session early. Adjournment date is May 20.

It’s not just the Senate either. House members have begun to weigh in. Veteran Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said on the social media site “X” that this changes the endgame equation for his party.

“We can have an orderly end of session,” he wrote on Tuesday. “This requires the final month of session be limited to items w/ bipartisan support. That way we don’t drag Sen. Mitchell back into the public eye. Instead we let her focus on her health and family.”

What else is still on the table?

The Legislature returns from its last recess with a pile of touch up spending bills and a public construction project yet to finish.

Lawmakers cleared their final committee deadline to move bills with a spending component through committee last week. That means that the last four weeks of session will center on workshopping budget priorities that can clear both chambers and moving them off the House and Senate floors.

Even before the Mitchell trouble, some big DFL priorities were at risk of getting pushed off board as lawmakers aim to keep the state afloat financially. While the state has a $3.7 billion projected budget surplus for the budget that ends in 2025, a potential deficit lies on the horizon.

Technically, lawmakers don’t have to do anything this year. They passed a two-year budget last year that will run through next summer so they won’t risk a budget shutdown by running out the clock without adopting more proposals.

After funneling budget bills through committees over the last several months, lawmakers will now get a last chance to tweak them before they get final seals of approval from the Senate Finance Committee or House Ways and Means Committee and come to a floor vote.

Republicans have said they hope that DFL leaders would put up more funding to aid emergency medical services. GOP lawmakers argue the $16 million budget target that DFL leaders put forward wouldn’t resolve issues that rural providers face.

The issue could become central to a deal around a capital investment bill in the final weeks of the legislative session. Republicans have unique leverage in the negotiations since their votes are needed to pass a bill and let the state take on debt to fund the projects.

MPR News Moorhead correspondent Dan Gunderson contributed to this report from Detroit Lakes.