Hate Crimes Bill Clears 2nd Hurdle, But Time Running Short

A Minnesota House of Representatives committee passed a bill that would address a rise in hate crimes in the state on Monday morning, but time is running out to have the bill passed this legislative session.

The bill made it through a Zoom meeting of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division on a party-line vote of 11-6, with one abstention. The six Republican no-votes stemmed from the financial burden the bill will add to the Department of Human Rights. It moves on to the House Ways & Means Committee next.

“I can understand why someone who thinks it’s a good idea but is concerned about cost,” said Carin Mrotz, the executive director of Jewish Community Action, part of the coalition of organizations that have been pushing for this legislation.

If passed, the bill will mandate police training on understanding and dealing with hate crimes, allow the state to collect hate crime reports from community organizations, and make it easier to charge property damage as a hate crime.

Also involved are the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN); and Out Front Minnesota, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) is also helping to advocate for the bill at the state capitol. Rep. Frank Hornstein, the lead author on the bill, said that if the objections are with appropriating money, it’s something that can be addressed.

“I really thought our growing team of supporters and testifiers really shined,” he said. “Attorney General Ellison not only discussed the role of his department but handled the question of transgender rights as well. Commissioner [Rebecca] Lucero discussed the role of the Department of Human Rights. I’m hopeful that as we move forward, there will be bi-partisan support. We’ll look at ways to get some of the bill across the finish line with minimal expenditure.”

Said Mrotz: “Having Commissioner Lucero and Attorney General Ellison supporting it is powerful. It’s giving the Department of Human Rights more work and they say yes, for good reason. That should matter.”

Hornstein, Mrotz, and Ethan Roberts, the JCRC’s director of government who testified at the hearing, talked about the impact of COVID-19 on the Asian-American community.

“[The bill] is part and parcel of a COVID response because of the rise we’re seeing not only in Asian-American community,” Hornstein said, pointing to a New York Times story on white nationalism recruiting and a Haaretz piece on coronavirus being a Jewish and Chinese conspiracy. “When you have social and economic upheaval, it’s ripe for extremism. That’s why this needs to be part of the response.”

Bo Thao-Urabe of the Coalition of Asian-American Leaders testified in the hearing that incidents of discrimination and violence have increased towards the Asian-American community since February because of coronavirus.

“We began receiving messages from community members about COVID-related bias, discrimination, and violence targeting them,” she said, which have included spitting, physical and verbal harassment, and discriminatory service. “I do not want history repeated when a group of people is identified as a target for our collective pain. Asian-Americans know from history how crises in America can lead to increased violence against them individually or collectively.”

The bill has had two hearings in two different House committees but has yet to be heard by the State Senate. Hornstein said that the bill is entering a phase where the financial considerations will have to be sorted before midnight Saturday for the bill to move forward.

This year’s session, by order of the Minnesota constitution, has to end by May 18. With it being an election year, the bill will have to start over from the beginning of the legislative process. Roberts and Hornstein both mentioned the uncertain financial situation the state is facing due to the economic impact of coronavirus as something that could hold the bill up

“I think we’re well-positioned to be successful next year,” Roberts said. “Because of the feedback we received from the Anti-Defamation League and work on the amendment, it’s gone a long way to addressing some of the concerns people had about the language. The bill is getting better and there are ways we could further strengthen it.

“I think what’s more important is that we have a broad coalition of organizations that are interested and engaged in the legislation, two substantive, constructive hearings, and there is a bi-partisan recognition that the bill is important.”

Hornstein was confident that if the bill doesn’t pass this session, the coalition will hold into next year.

“It was a problem before COVID, during COIVD, and it will be after,” he said. “If you look at this bill, there is nothing terribly controversial about it.”

Said Mrotz: “We did have a Senate companion bill with bi-partisan support, but never got an initial hearing at all. It’s a bummer because it would be great for both branches to prioritize responding to the increase in hate that so many Minnesotans are experiencing. Not everyone feels politically compelled.”