In charge and eager to boost their crime-fighting credentials, Democrats at the Minnesota Capitol must decide how to spend hundreds of millions in public safety dollars while balancing demands for community building, police reform and more cops on the streets.
The House public safety bill includes funding for law enforcement and community-based violence prevention, as well as reforms such as parameters for the quick release of body-worn camera footage from officers who use deadly force.
Senate Democrats also approved a broad mix of public safety funding and policy changes, with one major difference: They included an additional $325 million in their tax bill for cities, counties and tribal governments to spend on local public safety needs.
Gov. Tim Walz takes a similar approach, proposing $550 million for local governments to spend on public safety. State law enforcement groups endorse the approach of Walz and the Senate.
"The biggest issue that my members are dealing with right now is recruiting new police officers and retaining their current staff," said Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. "The appropriation that is in this tax bill could really help our agencies do a better job at recruiting and retaining."
The public safety discussion at the Capitol follows an election year in which Republicans challenged Walz and other Democrats about violent crime and their ability to tame it. The governor and some DFLers pledged support for law enforcement, but they're also balancing progressive goals of police accountability and crime prevention through community building and education.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said he was happy to see the one-time cash infusion for public safety in the tax bill.
"That's one of the proposals in there that Senate Republicans can agree with," Johnson said. "Funding law enforcement is something that we've been a big proponent of."
Last month, Minneapolis and Hennepin County leaders held a news conference calling for the Legislature to approve the governor's proposal of $550 million for local public safety aid.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said his city would receive about $34 million under Walz's plan. Frey said crime has decreased over the past year thanks to partnerships with state and federal agencies, but the city needs more money to keep up the progress.
Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O'Hara said the money could help the department ramp up recruitment and boost lagging pay.
"Serious street crime in this city remains at an outrageous and totally unacceptable level," O'Hara said at the news conference with Frey. "It's time to exercise leadership and to ensure that we make the appropriate investments in public safety."
The fate of the money is unclear as the House and Senate negotiate their respective tax bills into a final version.
Senate Taxes Committee Chairwoman Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, said she will not be the "shot-caller" on whether the $325 million proposal makes it into the final tax bill. "There's a lot of interested parties with very different points of view about how this money should be distributed and who should make decisions about it," Rest said.
In the House, Taxes Committee Chairwoman Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, declined an interview request and wouldn't say if she's willing to include the Senate's public safety funding for cities in the final tax bill.
"We share the same goal of passing a bill which helps as many Minnesotans as possible," Gomez said in a written statement.
Walz issued a statement Friday saying he will keep fighting to send the one-time public safety money to cities.
"We have travelled across the state listening to police and fire chiefs, mayors, and public safety professionals about the impact this funding would have on their ability to keep their neighborhoods safe," Walz said. "We know this funding is critical."
At the center of those discussions is Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights. She's the Senate liaison with the House and Walz regarding the $325 million public safety provision in the tax bill.
Gustafson said the Senate recognizes why the House is proposing tighter controls on public safety spending, adding that it's important to build a healthy relationship with law enforcement.
"The wrong way to do it is to say, 'Here's a blank check and we like you,'" she said. "That can leave things open in a way that makes people uncomfortable."
In the House public safety budget bill, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension would get money to assist local law enforcement with investigations. The Senate would establish state violent crime investigation teams.
GOP Rep. Paul Novotny, the Republican lead on the House public safety committee, has concerns about a provision in the House bill that would allow nonprofits to apply for community crime and violence prevention grants. He said he'd feel more comfortable sending that money — up to $30 million per year — to police departments or local governments.
"My biggest concern … is the community grants and how they're going to be used, and what oversight will be in those grants," said Novotny, R-Elk River.
Both the House and Senate included money for mental health services for first responders, student loan forgiveness for police officers and reimbursements for police departments that give their officers retention bonuses.
Reform measures in the House bill include stricter rules on the use of no-knock search warrants and prohibiting police officers from affiliating with hate or extremist groups.
"We were really trying to accomplish thinking about public safety from everything through prevention to rehabilitation and everything in between," said House Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview.
Gustafson and Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, vice chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said reform is important to the Senate, too.
"We don't want to see what happened to George Floyd, Philando Castile or Amir Locke again," said Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul. "There's wide agreement on that, and we're committed to addressing those policies."