Gender equity, violence bills get debate amid budget battle

Published 8:53 am Saturday, May 11, 2019

ST. PAUL — Several initiatives to promote gender equity and reduce gender-based violence are in play as Minnesota’s legislative session nears an end, ranging from a potential overhaul of the state’s sexual assault laws to making it easier to sue for sexual harassment.

The House on Thursday unanimously passed a bill to address the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women, while a bill that would make it a crime to grope someone’s buttocks through their clothing moved closer to a Senate floor vote.

The Democratic-controlled House has passed several gender violence and equity bills amid the heightened awareness of the #MeToo era this session. Fewer have made as much headway in the Republican-controlled Senate. But most of the issues have landed in a conference committee that is resolving differences between the two chambers’ main public safety budget bills, and some have bipartisan support.

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The session has already had one bipartisan success against gender-based violence. Gov. Tim Walz signed a repeal of a state law that prevented prosecutors from filing felony criminal sexual assault charges against people accused of raping their spouses.

Mysti Babineau watched from the gallery Thursday as the House passed a bill to form a task force on missing and murdered indigenous women. Babineau, a member of the Red Lake Nation who’s been campaigning for the task force, heard Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, a descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux, tell how thousands of cases go “unreported, uninvestigated and unsolved.” She recounted Babineau’s story as an example of the violence that Native American women all too often face because they’re vulnerable, invisible and afraid of going to police.

“Mysti was just 9 years old when she was first assaulted by the boyfriend of her foster mother,” Kunesh-Podein said. “When she was 12 years old she witnessed her grandmother being murdered in front of her, and then she watched her attacker go after her mother, and then after her. Mysti still has the scars on her hands as she defended herself. When she was 20 years old she was kidnapped, she was taken over 60 miles from her home, and she was held against her will, was raped, but she finally got away.”

Babineau teared up as the roll call board lit up in green. She said afterward that she considers it “my job to use my pain to make it so that other women won’t have to go through the same thing.” She said the task force would produce accurate numbers, help spot trends and hold law enforcement accountable.

An Associated Press investigation last year found that nobody knows precisely how cases of missing and murdered Native American women happen nationwide because many cases go unreported, others aren’t well documented and no government database specifically tracks them.

Kunesh-Podein said she hopes the task force emerges as part of the final public safety budget bill. The proposal was included in a huge catch-all spending bill last year that then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed for other reasons.

The leaders in shaping the public safety bill are Democratic Rep. Carlos Mariani and Republican Sen. Warren Limmer. The Senate version contains few policy provisions, whereas the House version has around 75, including several that deal with gender violence and equity. Most didn’t get Senate hearings.

“And so the gender issues that are coming up are relatively new to us,” Limmer said. “I’m not necessarily going to prejudge their ideas until I hear them and understand the rationality for them.”

Among the major gender violence proposals from the House that conferees discussed Thursday is forming a task force to look at Minnesota’s sexual assault statutes and recommend changes. The proposal flowed from a Star Tribune investigation last year that documented widespread failings in how Minnesota authorities deal with sex crimes.

Mariani said the problem is that Minnesota currently has “a statutory framework that reflects another time and era when we weren’t valuing survivors and victims as much as we are now doing.”

Another proposal before the conference committee, one of the House Democrats’ Top 10 priorities for the session, would make it easier for workplace sexual harassment victims to sue by lowering a legal bar that sponsors say is unrealistically high. Minnesota courts require that victims must prove the harassment was “severe or pervasive” for a case to succeed. Backers of the change say that often shuts out victims of unwanted kissing, touching and sexual comments.

“Eventually we’re going to get to a point where we have to put the bill finally together,” Limmer said. “We’ll take a few ideas from theirs, they’ll take a few ideas from ours, and hopefully we’ll come to a rational conclusion of what’s best for this area of law.”