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Why hugely popular bills don't have a chance in the Minnesota Senate

From gun control to paid family leave, Senator Matt Little is elevating Minnesota's favorite hopeless causes by forming the Committee on Banned Bills, the only place some of the state's most popular legislation can get a hearing.

From gun control to paid family leave, Senator Matt Little is elevating Minnesota's favorite hopeless causes by forming the Committee on Banned Bills, the only place some of the state's most popular legislation can get a hearing. Minnesota Senate

Depending on what poll you look at, somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of Minnesotans favor criminal background checks on all gun purchases. That includes between 87 and 89 percent of gun owners.

So you might have thought state Sen. Ron Latz (D-St. Louis Park) would have no trouble passing his latest background check bill. But for the last year and a half, with Republicans in control of the Senate, he couldn’t even get a hearing.

The excuses varied. Sometimes he was told the schedule was full, or his committee chair said the decision was over his head. But it all adds up to one conclusion in his mind:

“They don’t want to hear the bill, and they don’t want it to move forward,” he says. “I find it impossible to believe they couldn’t find an hour and a half or two hours to discuss it.”

When Latz says “they,” he doesn’t necessarily mean “Republicans.” There are some Democrats who oppose tougher gun control laws. But Republicans' majority means they control the committees. Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa) has already promised Latz’s bill will go absolutely nowhere in his chamber, even as a similar version gains momentum in the House.

Which means Latz is sitting on a bill that an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans want, but may never be heard. For now, it looks like it’s getting the next best thing. Sen. Matt Little (D-Lakeville) is including the bill and several others in a special hearing to take place on April 1: the Senate Committee on Banned Bills.

It's for all of Minnesota’s favorite hopeless causes: gun control, paid family leave, restoring ex-felons' right to vote, and a constitutional amendment for gender equality. These are “huge, broad issues,” Little says, with widespread appeal – but little to no hope of going anywhere in the Senate. 

There are plenty of reasons why that could be. Sen. Patricia Torres Ray (D-Minneapolis) believes Republicans want to use these popular bills as bargaining chips for some of the less popular bills its hardcore base wants – rolling them up, essentially, in a monster bill “400 pages long” and asking senators to accept or reject them wholesale.

Her bill on recruiting more teachers of color is on the Banned Bills Committee’s docket. “These particular issues should not be used as political pawns to negotiate," she says. "It’s fundamentally wrong.”

Of course, not all the going theories involve complicated political maneuvers.

“The people in the majority know they’re on the wrong side of these issues and don’t want to vote against them,” Little says. That, or they simply don't want Democrats getting too many wins. 

Either way, he says, it’s “rigging our democracy,” and it’s nothing short of “crass partisanship.”

Minnesota is the only state left with a split legislature – Democrats controlling one chamber, Republicans the other. We're increasingly viewed as an experiment in bipartisan democracy. If we can make this work, then perhaps our nation can find its way back to a semblance of balance.

Whether it’s working is difficult to say, based on how this session is going. There are no Republicans on the Banned Bills Committee, although they’re welcome to join, Little says. He’s hopeful it will at least allow people to have their legislation heard, and pressure committee leaders into actually giving some of these bills a real hearing.

Notably, Gazelka has recently changed his stance on background checks, and expressed some “willingness” to hear Latz’s bill… provided it passes the House.

Latz is not holding his breath.