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MN Capitol Notebook: Recreational pot bill goes down, gun control and abortion measures force impasse

Gun control supporters rallied at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 13, to urge Minnesota Senate leaders to hold hearings on a pair of bills that would restrict the purchase and possession of firearms.  Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service1 / 4
Supporters of a pair of gun control bills gathered at the Capitol Wednesday, March 13, to urge Minnesota senators to hold a hearing for the proposals. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service2 / 4
Plymouth Police Chief Michael Goldstein testifies against a bill that would legalize marijuana for recreational use in Minnesota and expunge certain crimes related to marijuana on Monday, March 11, 2019. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service3 / 4
Department of Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey testifies before the Senate Committee on Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service4 / 4

ST. PAUL -- Hopes for legalizing recreational marijuana in Minnesota came to a halt in a state Senate panel.

Chasms emerged as gun control and abortion came up ahead of a legislative deadline.

Millions of dollars of fraud were reported in the state's child care assistance program and legislators split on how to address it.

As the Minnesota Legislature took up some of the most controversial proposals of the legislative session, divisions emerged between the Republican-led Senate and the Democrat-led House of Representatives.

The debates this week came ahead of a Friday deadline for bills that don't deal with spending to pass out of committee in their house of origin. The deadline is by no means final as policy bills can get wound up in budget proposals or brought up for consideration through special orders, but it does light a fire under lawmakers to get their bills moving through the Capitol before conversations turn to the state budget.

There appeared to be no compromise in sight for several of the bills up for a vote this week. And legislative leaders suggested they'd take the hot-button issues to voters in hopes of flipping the balance of power at the Capitol in 2020.

Recreational marijuana bill goes down

A Senate panel this week voted down a proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use after various efforts to keep the measure alive in the Legislature.

Members of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy voted 6-3 to reject the bill that would legalize marijuana and allow for the expungement of certain crimes involving the drug. Democrats on the panel supported the bill while Republicans opposed it.

"It just seems to me that this is not a healthy path to go for the state of Minnesota," Committee Chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said, following testimony from law enforcement and physicians opposing the bill.

Republicans' move to sink the proposal drew scorn from Gov. Tim Walz, who has supported legalizing the drug for recreational use.

“They kind of promised that we would explore this, we would have a statewide conversation, we would see the best way to go. They failed on that,” Walz told the Pioneer Press. “They chose and already knew the outcome.”

The DFL governor told the Pioneer Press that he was still weighing convening a task force to study legalization and the state's medical marijuana program.

Gun control, abortion bills face an impasse in divided Capitol

The split in the state Legislature came into focus this week as Senate leaders put off a vote on a slate of gun bills and the GOP-led Senate and DFL-led House took up divergent proposals on women's reproductive health care.

Gun control supporters rallied at the Capitol on Wednesday to urge Senate leaders to hold hearings on a pair of bills that would restrict the purchase and possession of firearms.

Republican legislative leaders said the bills and other gun measures aimed at expanding access to firearms wouldn't be a priority this year. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he instructed Limmer to focus on writing a two-year spending plan.

“I want his primary focus to be the budget, we have to get that done this year," Gazelka said. "Next year he can pick up a lot of other issues if he wants, and guns certainly would be one of those he could consider."

At the gun control rally, First Lady Gwen Walz stepped into a new advocacy role and said she'd work with the bills' supporters to flip control of the Senate to Democrats.

“There are seven senators sitting in seats where Tim Walz won, and they are Republican," the first lady told the group. "And we are coming.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, a day later said some GOP senators are "out of touch" with the values of their constituents on gun control and women's reproductive health issues and she said Democrats would lead a push to vote them out in 2020.

“Whether it is women in pink T-shirts or women in red T-shirts, there’s an army out there that flipped seats in 2018 and there is a direct connection between elections and the policy we can enact here at the state Capitol," Hortman said.

Senate Republicans appeared to dig in on both topics. A Senate panel on Thursday advanced the bill that would ban abortions on women who are past 20 weeks in their pregnancy except in cases of possible death or serious physical harm. And the bill's supporters said voters likely would agree with that approach.

"I think most Minnesotans would say that when a child can feel pain, we should protect them," the bill's author Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said. "Senate Republicans are having a much more moderate Minnesotan-based conversation, we're not taking an abortion ban back to conception, we're saying when a child can feel pain, it deserves protection."

Fraud outed in state child care assistance program

A report from the nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor this week confirmed previous reports of fraud in the state's child care assistance program but found no ties between stolen dollars and terrorist groups.

Lawmakers commissioned the report after a KMSP-TV/Fox 9 investigation found that fraud in the state's Child Care Assistance Program possibly to the tune of $100 million. The station also said some of the money was placed in suitcases that were transported from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport to countries in the Middle East or East Africa. And from there it could be skimmed by terrorist groups.

Auditors found that some level of fraud exists in the program aimed at helping low-income people afford childcare, but they couldn't substantiate a claim that that fraud came out to $100 million. Nor could they prove that some of that money could've ended up in the hands of terrorist groups

In response to the report, Department of Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey said the Department of Human Services would work to prevent, detect and investigate fraud in the program.

Republicans said the findings should prompt stricter controls to prevent child care providers from bringing in state dollars to which they're not entitled and a top investigator who doubted investigators reports of fraud should resign.