ST. PAUL — A shakeup in leadership at the Capitol could help advance conversations on sexual harassment legislation, top lawmakers said Wednesday, Feb. 5.
Meanwhile, legislation on gun control legislation, emergency insulin access and voter privacy remained on the fence as legislative leaders and the governor previewed the 2020 legislative session.
The comments came during a Forum News Service panel discussion among state legislative leaders, Gov. Tim Walz and reporters from around the state. At her first appearance as Senate Minority Leader, Sen. Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, said her ousting of former leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, wouldn't split her caucus and her focus would remain on issues that affect all Minnesotans.
"What we want to make sure is that every voice has a place at the table and everyone is heard, that all of these issues get fair discussions and hearings and then it's really about focusing on basic priorities that we have as Minnesotans," Kent said, citing health care, jobs and education. "Gov. Walz has said One Minnesota and that's what we're here to do."
Kent took the helm after a closed caucus vote Saturday, Feb. 1. Since her win, Iron Range officials had raised concerns about Bakk's demotion after a decade in the post coming at the cost of Greater Minnesota policy and spending priorities. And Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said they were concerned about what the shift in leadership from an Iron Range moderate to a Woodbury Democrat with a more progressive record could mean for Minnesota.
"The people up there, I think they are concerned seeing their senator removed from power, but that is the nature of this place," Gazelka said. Gazelka said he had a strong working relationship with Bakk and planned to develop a working relationship with Kent heading into the legislative session.
Kent became the first woman to hold the Senate DFL leadership position. And House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said Kent's leadership could help push forward legislation aimed at making it easier for survivors of sexual harassment to take their cases to court.
"It'll be nice to have another ally in the room," Hortman said.
Lawmakers have grappled with language in state law that bars sexual harassment survivors from taking cases to court unless their cases are considered "severe or pervasive." And an effort to remove that standard last year passed the House of Representatives but didn't pass in the Senate.
Hortman said the measure would again be a priority for House lawmakers. And Kent said she was ready to make a strong pitch for the measure in her chamber.
"We've been a willing partner all the way through, but I have an extra interest in this, obviously," Kent said.
Republicans hold a majority in the Senate and their support will be critical to passing the proposal. Gazelka said his caucus was open to a conversation about the legislation but he wanted to make sure lawmakers were thoughtful about passing legislation that didn't cause unintended consequences. And Walz said he viewed the legislation as critical.
The first-term governor said his administration was reviewing state employee training and protocols to prevent harassment in the workplace. Walz said the state should serve as a role model for other employers in the state.
The legislative leaders also addressed questions about other issues that had come to light since the Legislature ended its business last year. They said they were still working toward a compromise on a program to offer emergency insulin for those who can't afford it, could work together to improve opportunity gaps in Minnesota schools and would take up a discussion on how political parties can use voter data obtained in the March 3 presidential primaries.
But it seemed unlikely based on their comments that gun control legislation would have a path forward this year.
The Minnesota Legislature is set to convene Feb. 11.