Community Priorities Moving Forward At Legislative Session

With the Minnesota Legislative session a few weeks old, a bill that has been hanging around the House for the past several years has already had its first hearing and – its best chance of becoming law.

The “Combatting Hate Bill” – previously colloquially known as the “hate crimes bill,” was presented to the House Public Safety Policy and Finance committee on Tuesday, Jan. 17, and is just one of a number of legislative efforts the Jewish community is pushing for this session.

The Communities Combating Hate Coalition is made up of 17 different organizations representing the Jewish, Asian-American, Latinx, Muslim, and LGBTQ communities, including Jewish Community Action, Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, NCJW Minnesota, and ADL Midwest.

“Our coalition recognizes that we need to update the laws that help us combat hate in Minnesota,” said Beth Gendler, JCA’s executive director, in her testimony to the House committee. Gendler said the bill will update current hate-crimes policy to include crimes against property, some of which are exempted by the language in the current bill, and it will provide grants to culturally specific community organizations through the Department of Public Safety which will allow them to work with law enforcement to report in fact bias-motivated crimes and incidents. 

It will include updated training for the POST board so that officers have the information they need to properly identify and respond to incidents of hate, and updates the language that identifies protected classes and ensures that those definitions are uniform throughout the statute.

“The bill does not, nor do we seek, enhanced penalties for bias-motivated crimes, or new penalties that would in any way infringe on anyone’s freedom of speech,” Gendler said. “We need to close the loopholes in the current hate crime statute that make it impossible to accurately reflect the state of hate in Minnesota. And we need to empower community organizations and law enforcement partners to work together to ensure accuracy. If we can’t name it, we can’t fight it.”

The bill has been hanging around the legislature for the past few years. It passed the DFL-controlled House in 2021 and made it through two separate House committee hearings during the 2020 legislative session, but the session ended before it could go to the floor for a vote. The State Senate, which was led by the Republicans from 2017 until the start of this session, did not hold hearings on the bill or a vote for the full Senate to consider. 

Brandon Schorsch, the combatting hate organizer for JCA, said the legislation includes a mechanism so that incidents that are not crimes can be cataloged so that community organizations can respond to them.

“I would like to use the example of Hennepin County declaring racism a public health crisis,” Schorsch said. “You can go and use data like this to create heat maps to look at where are the zones where we’re seeing the most [incidents] and what types? It’s a little harder to do that if there aren’t official mechanisms of reporting.”

The House bill was written and is being led by Rep. Samantha Vang of Brooklyn Center. It had been written by Rep. Frank Hornstein previously – and he’s a co-sponsor this term. The Senate version of the bill is being authored by Sen. Zaynab Mohamed; in previous sessions, Sen. Ron Latz had led the effort.

Mohamed is one of two newly elected senators – Erin Maye Quade being the other – who worked for an organization that is part of the coalition prior to their election to office. Mohamed worked for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Maye Quade for Gender Justice. 

Holocaust & Genocide Education Mandate

One of the big priorities for the Jewish Community Relations Council is a bill that would mandate Holocaust and genocide education in Minnesota schools. Ethan Roberts, the JCRC’s deputy executive director and the director of the Twin Cities Government Affairs Program, said the bill is being looked at by the educators at the University of Minnesota, St. Cloud State and Mankato State before it is formally introduced.

“We’re really trying to capture the collective wisdom that we have so that when we introduce this bill, it’s in the best possible shape it can be,” Roberts said. “As with any bill as it goes through the legislative process, new people and new ideas will come forward and there’s always a need to potentially modify it through the amendment process. But we wanted to put our best foot forward.”

The bill will include resources for teachers to be properly trained to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides. If the bill passes, Minnesota will be one of roughly 20 states that have some sort of education legislation passed.

“Some are just the Holocaust, but the better ones are Holocaust and other genocides,” Roberts said. “Some are requirements, others are highly recommended or advised. But we’re not just asking teachers to do something and then not giving them the tools to be successful at it.”

Support for families

Roberts said a priority for Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis was the ParentChild+ program. The national organization, which was brought to Minnesota by JFCS, “works with families, caregivers, and communities to support not only early literacy and school readiness but early opportunities, regardless of their race, socio-economic status, or ZIP code.”

JFCS worked with organizations first in Cass County, and then six years ago in Rice County, St. Cloud, and Rochester to expand the program in the state. And it has worked, leading to waitlists. The hope is that legislators will double the state money appropriated to the program from $1.8 million to $3.6 million. Gov. Tim Walz included that amount in his education budget which was released on Jan. 24.

“We’ve been meeting with representatives in the administration and asking them to include a long-term increase,” said JFCS COO Lee Friedman. “This is the first time we’ve had an increase in the governor’s budget. There’s a long way to go to get to the finish line, but we have authors carrying the bills in the House and the Senate.” 

In the last session, the state House had approved the legislation but the Senate did not.

“Then-Sen. Roger Chamberlain, who was the chair of the Education Committee, didn’t want to fund anything with early childhood education,” Roberts said. He thought that even if Republicans kept the Senate after the 2022 elections, a Chamberlain loss could help advance the bill. “It has never been a partisan program. Sen. Carla Nelson from Rochester is a huge champion of the program and she’s a Republican.

“The real pushback was really not about the program with Sen. Chamberlain, but really more philosophical about should the government really be in the business of early childhood education.” 

Friedman echoed Roberts’s statement of bipartisan support.

“The governor’s priorities could shift and the legislature has to pass the bill, but what gives us optimism is that program, since it was initially funded at the Capitol, has always had support in the House and the Senate from Democrats and Republicans,” he said. 

The JFCS Advocacy Committee, which is made up of volunteers and staff from not just JFCS but also Jewish Family Service of St. Paul and PRISM, the food shelf which shares a building with JFCS in Golden Valley, is also working to support a number of bills at the capitol this session. Among them are: addressing the senior care workforce shortage, which directly affects Sholom and other care providers throughout the state; a number of priorities with respect to anti-hunger initiatives including increased funds for breakfast and lunch in schools and expanding funding for food shelves; and gun violence prevention. 

Friedman said they are organizing with the committee and others a March 1 visit to the capitol to meet with legislators.

Menstrual equity bill has hearing

For several years, NCJW Minnesota has been advocating for legislation that would provide menstrual products in school bathrooms. Like the combatting hate bill, this session might be the best change for such a bill to be passed.

House File 44, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Sandra Feist, would institute a statewide mandate — all school bathrooms serving students in grades 4-12 must be furnished with menstrual products. The state would foot the bill for providing these supplies.

“The impact of period poverty on students’ ability to really get a full education in Minnesota” is beyond dispute, Feist said. Sen. Steve Cwodzinski is the chief author of the Senate version of the bill. 

The bill’s journey has been from the House Education Policy Committee, the House Education Finance Committee and, earlier on Jan. 25, to its final stop at the House Ways and Means Committee. The Senate bill has been moved to the Finance Committee.

NCJW Minnesota says that California, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Pennsylvania have passed laws requiring menstrual products to be available for free in middle and high school bathrooms.

NCJW Minnesota’s website said that access to period products is an issue of gender equity, health equity and education equity. “Students who don’t menstruate have access to everything they need for health and hygiene in their school bathrooms – toilet paper, soap, running water, and paper towels or dryers, while menstruators are expected to carry products with them.

“Some students resort to using items like rags, paper towels, toilet paper, or cardboard. Others ration sanitary products by using them for extended amounts of time. If period products are available in a nurse’s office or from a teacher or a fellow student, and the student is able to overcome the stigma surrounding periods to find a resource and request a product, it causes an interruption in their school day and impacts their ability to stay in their classrooms. Students who use improvised products or who have to find and request products are vulnerable to harmful physical and mental health outcomes, such as vaginosis, potentially fatal toxic shock syndrome, anxiety, and depression.”

NCJW Minnesota Executive Director Erica Solomon said that the organization’s involvement in the Periods Happen program started with one school’s request for menstrual hygiene products. It sparked an NCJW program that has distributed 200,000 pads and tampons to the community.