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Bills to make freeway protesting penalties more severe are moving forward

Committees passed the bills Wednesday.

Republican-sponsored bills that would increase the penalty for people who protest on highways are going to get full votes in the House and Senate.

After some passionate testimony Wednesday, a House committee voted 10-6 to approves twobills that would make it a gross misdemeanor to obstruct highways, airports and access to public transportation.

Currently, obstructing a highway is a misdemeanor (a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and/or $1,000 fine). A gross misdemeanor carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and $3,000 in fines.

“A misdemeanor has not been a deterrent to keep people off of freeways, to keep people from closing down airports, so hopefully a gross misdemeanor will, where someone is actually booked and actually spends time in jail,” said Rep. Nick Zerwas, a Republican from Elk River who authored one of the bills, according to the Star Tribune.

Opponents of the measures, including many who testified at Wednesday's meeting, have argued that they are aimed at silencing non-violent protesters and limiting people's First Amendment rights. They also say it would disproportionately affect people of color and send them to jail for protesting police shootings of black men.

But Zerwas said in a statement Wednesday the bill doesn't limit people's rights to peacefully assemble, and he's not against people protesting.

"Blocking the free flow of commerce is not only disrespectful of people’s time, it’s a matter of public safety," Zerwas said. "I am grateful that Gov. Dayton has publicly indicated his support for this legislation, and I look forward to working with him to see that this is signed into law."

For the governor to have a chance to sign a bill into law, both the full House and Senate have to pass identical bills. The full House will vote on this proposal in the near future.

So what's going on in the Senate?

companion to Zerwas' bill passed a Senate committee Wednesday afternoon, and will also head to the Senate floor for a vote.

But the Pioneer Press notes the Senate version limits the punishment to people who protest at larger airports and on freeways – so it isn't identical to the House proposal, meaning one of them would have to change and be re-approved if it's going to become law.

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