A sprawling public safety and security finance bill passed the Minnesota House on Tuesday evening by a vote of 92-35.
The bill contains a wide range of alterations to existing public safety laws and funding for corrections, probation and child protection workers that were included in an omnibus bill for final discussion on Tuesday.
But it was one change to Minnesota's highway law that proved a major bone of contention among lawmakers discussing it.
The change would see penalties increased for “entering, exiting, or on a freeway or entering, exiting, or on a public roadway within the boundaries of airport property with the intent to interfere with, obstruct, or otherwise disrupt traffic."
It would become a gross misdemeanor if it's signed into law, it's currently a misdemeanor.
There was also criticism that the public safety bill did not contain any kind of meaningful gun reforms, despite several proposals being made to the Republican-led house in the wake of the Florida school shooting.
GOPers say it's not about stopping free speech
Opponents, with Minneapolis and St. Paul DFLers among the most vocal about it, say it's an unnecessary move and one that arguably seeks to curtail freedom of speech.
There have been several occasions in which freeways in Minneapolis and St. Paul have been shut down in recent years by demonstrators in the wake of fatal police shootings of black individuals.
Among those opposing the change was Rep. Ilhan Omar (DFL-Minneapolis), who said there have been no official calls from county attorneys or police to increase these penalties, and accused Republicans of continuing "their attempt to silence voices and to criminalize the very type of non-violent protest that African Americans used to bring about the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s."
Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul) offered an amendment to remove the language but was outvoted.
"We’ve heard no complaints from law enforcement, no complaints from the cities involved that somehow the tools that they already have are insufficient,” he said This is being pushed as part of this systematic agenda to punish those who are attempting to raise the inequities that they see.”
But Republicans like Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) said it was not about curtailing free speech, but about keeping open "critical, important transportation corridors that affect commerce and save lives."
"If you’re standing out on a freeway or closing an airport, I don’t care if you’re pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, if you’re fighting for indigenous rights or racial justice, I don’t give a rip," he said, according to Session Daily.
Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River) agreed, saying: "That the language in this bill would do is say that that activity where you block a freeway, when you block access to an airport, when you march in front of a light-rail train and put your arms in PVC pipe and handcuff each other together and then put bike locks around each other’s neck to the fence. That activity is so dangerous that it deserves to have an extra criminal penalty."