Dwindling timeline, ethics probe test Minn. lawmakers ability to complete work

Published 5:55 am Monday, May 6, 2024

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By Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News

Two weeks remain in an election-year legislative session — and fewer days that lawmakers can take action on bills on the floor.

The fate of a capital investment bill, a raft of budget bills, agreements on cannabis legislation and the potential for action on sports betting and a constitutional equal rights amendment all hang in the balance.

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An ethics case against DFL Sen. Nicole Mitchell could dictate how the final weeks go. That hearing Tuesday, which will also include discussion of a complaint filed last year against a Republican lawmaker, is scheduled for Tuesday.

Capitol Republicans said they will continue pressing for punishment against Mitchell, who was arrested and charged in an alleged burglary attempt in April. They have kept attention on her troubles and don’t intend to back off — and that means more motions on the Senate floor aiming to block Mitchell from voting or calling for her to resign.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said Friday that until Democrats take serious measures — such as calling for her resignation or suspension — those efforts would continue.

“We want to hold people accountable for their actions, whether you’re a senator, or if you’re just a regular public person, you need to be held accountable,” Johnson said. “There’s laws that need to be passed, a bonding bill that needs to be done. Let’s figure out a way forward to do that. And we can do that together, just as Minnesotans want us to do.”

Democrats have had little to say about the merits of the accusations other than to say Mitchell deserves the opportunity to defend herself in court and ethics proceedings. Meanwhile, her vote could be the deciding one on a range of bills.

As for how the swirl around her affects bill progress, DFL leaders labeled this as typical end-of-session pile-up.

“This is the time of year where it always looks like there’s no way, ‘How’s that gonna happen?’ And it almost always does,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said, noting that no matter what the state has an operating budget in place and won’t risk a shutdown.

She noted that Democrats didn’t anticipate the blowback that their budget touch-up and policy bills have faced.

“We didn’t expect that they hated our bills as much this year as they did last year. But, it turns out, we’re still Democrats and they’re still Republicans,” she said.

What’s hanging in the balance?

Lawmakers don’t have to do anything this year after passing a $72 billion two-year budget in the 2023 session.

DFL leaders said they’re confident they can get things done in two weeks. Despite that, it becomes a higher hurdle every day they don’t get some of these bills moving. They have eight legislative days left to get their work done. The Constitution sets a limit on how many days lawmakers can pass bills during their two-year cycle.

Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she and others had begun triaging some policies with the deadline on the horizon. She said that a high-density housing bill is an example of a policy that will have to wait another year since it doesn’t have enough support.

She said that budget bills, capital investment and an equal rights constitutional amendment remained on track. But their trajectory hinges on whether GOP lawmakers agree. Capital investment bills – known as bonding bills – take a higher vote threshold to pass. And other measures could be pushed off to 2025 if lawmakers run out of time.

“If we have cooperation on the part of the Republicans on the bonding bill we’ll be able to get that done and the supplemental budget bills that we want to finish up as well,” Murphy said.

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said that lawmakers have already accomplished most of their must-do items this session. She said that they should prioritize a bonding bill and funding for emergency medical service providers and head home.

“We are fully funded, nothing’s going to shut down. Nothing’s going to happen. Yes, there’s some things to be done. But that’s up to the majority and how they want to get their work done,” Demuth said. “The less opportunity for more damage to be done to the state, probably the better.”

What is the ethics committee taking up?

The Senate’s Subcommittee on Ethical Conduct will take up two complaints — one against Mitchell and another against GOP Sen. Glenn Gruenhagen, of Glencoe.

The complaint against Mitchell alleges that she violated Senate rules requiring members to uphold high levels of ethical conduct and not act in a way that betrays the public trust.

Republicans argue that Mitchell broke those rules last month when she was arrested for felony burglary and in the days since in public statements about the incident. The incident occurred at the home of her stepmother, where her late father lived. In limited written comments and in part of a criminal complaint, the senator has said she was trying to retrieve items belonging to her father and check on her stepmother when a 911 call was placed.

Gruenhagen’s complaint stems from a situation last year where he sent a link to members that contained a graphic video depicting a person’s genitals. He has said he was trying to make a point about a bill that dealt with gender-affirming care.

How does the ethics process work?

The ethics panel evaluates complaints against members and can make recommendations to the full chamber on how to move forward. Those recommendations can range from calling for an apology to censuring a senator to expulsion.

The four-member committee is composed of two Democrats and two Republicans.

It’s unlikely that the panel will reach a conclusion right away. Typically, the committee weighs the complaint and makes a probable cause determination. There can be interviews with people involved and other evidence considered.

Former DFL Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge served as chair of the ethics subcommittee in the 1990s. She oversaw ethics proceedings for six DFL senators faced with criminal charges while serving in office.

She urged the four-person panel to try and reach a unanimous recommendation and avoid making the proceeding political.

“Ethics knows no politics. Anyone can be accused of a complaint,” she said. “Let’s be fair, let’s be honest. Let’s be non political.”

Reichgott Junge said in prior cases, including those she oversaw, the panel waited to proceed with a recommendation until criminal proceedings concluded. She also said that the senators that faced ethics inquiries retained their right to floor votes as the ethics investigation moved forward.

“I have been troubled by the fact that there have been motions to remove the senator’s (Mitchell’s) vote,” she said. “The senator has a vote if they’re a senator. If they resign or they’re expelled, they no longer have a vote.”

Reichgott Junge said she thought Mitchell should have abstained from a vote on her own ability to vote or remain in the chamber, however.

Murphy said the two members of the ethics subcommittee have left DFL Caucus meetings if any conversation about Mitchell came up because DFL leaders want to prevent the committee process from taking on a partisan tone. Mitchell was removed from caucus meetings last week.

“It is not a place where we play politics, it is not a place where we try and execute a strategy. It is not a place where we’re putting our fingers on the scale,” Murphy said.