Nick Zerwas.jpg

Nick Zerwas

ST. PAUL — A bill toughening criminal penalties for protesters who block freeway access cleared the Minnesota House on Monday despite fierce opposition from Democratic lawmakers.

Under the measure, protesters found guilty of blocking access to a freeway, airport or transit could be charged with a gross misdemeanor and face up to a year in jail and a fine of $3,000. Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to strip the provision out of a larger public safety finance bill via an amendment.

Critics say the measure goes too far, cracking down on people seeking to have their voices heard.

"We don't want to stop people in the future from feeling like they can protest when they think that things are wrong," said Rochester DFL Rep. Tina Liebling.

But supporters say the bill is about public safety. The measure's sponsor, Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said he has heard concerns from people stuck in traffic during protests. He shared the story of a woman who had to wait 90 days to see a specialist at Mayo Clinic to treat a painful illness. On the way to the appointment, the Big Lake resident got stuck in traffic due to protesters who were blocking the highway. She missed her appointment at Mayo Clinic and was told she would have to wait another 90 days.

"She called me in tears and in pain and at her wit's end because she didn't know what she was going to do," Zerwas said.

The amendment to get rid of the harsher protest penalties failed by a nearly party-line vote of 75-56. The larger public safety bill passed the GOP-led House by a vote 94 to 37. The Senate has passed its own public safety budget bill that does not include the protest penalty language. A House-Senate conference committee will work to come up with a compromise bill.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, said concerns about ambulances not being able to get to protests are unfounded, while holding up a picture of protesters parting in order way to make way for an ambulance.

"We need to work on policies not out of anger, or because we are annoyed, but because they further a common good," she said. "This particular provision is created ... because there is a particular annoyance we have with a particular group of people who have decided to organize themselves."

In an interview, Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, said he supports the tougher penalties for protesters. He said he is concerned about past protests where police officers were injured. He sees this measure as a way to discourage troublemakers from joining in the marches.

Quam added, "Frankly, if we actually showed people we were serious, the bad behavior might be deterred."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Politics Reporter

Heather started at the Post Bulletin in 2005 and took on the politics beat in 2009. Prior to that, she reported on small towns in Dodge and Olmsted counties. When not working, she is likely to be found exploring Minnesota's hiking trails with her family.