Apr 4, 2024 - Politics

DFL divide over abortion, details, slows push for Minnesota ERA

ERA supporters with a green sign outside the legislative chambers in minnesotra from above

ERA supporters rallied on the first day of the legislative session. Photo: Torey Van Oot/Axios

A push to give voters the power to add broad protections for gender, race, abortion, and LGBTQ rights into the Minnesota constitution remains in limbo amid an internal DFL debate over what the amendment should say.

Why it matters: While advocates and legislators working on the effort say they're still on track to pass a bill putting the Equal Rights Amendment on a future ballot, the clock is ticking to get the measure through the DFL's narrow majorities this year.

The big picture: House Democrats and a coalition of ERA advocates want to update the proposed ballot language to explicitly add the right to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care in the wake of the 2022 Dobbs decision.

  • But some Senate Democrats prefer sticking with a version that passed their chamber last year with bipartisan support, chief Senate author Mary Kunesh told Axios.

What they're saying: "We have some members that are really very, very satisfied with what we sent over to the House," the New Brighton Democrat said. "They feel like that is a clean bill."

Catch up fast: Supporters say the new language, drafted by a coalition of supporters and attorneys after the bill stalled in the House at the end of last session, simply spells out the underlying goals of the ERA in a less ambiguous way.

  • "[It will] give judges the clearest direction and the strongest tool to make sure that we can address discrimination," said Gender Justice executive director Megan Peterson, who was part of the coalition that worked on the proposed rewrite.
  • She downplayed disagreements, saying while there's "some hesitation about the updates, passing the measure is just a matter of legislators getting a little "more comfortable and familiar" with the langugue.

Zoom in: The new version would add "pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes, and reproductive freedom," to a list of identities protected from discrimination. Creed was removed.

  • Color, national origin, ancestry, and disability are also covered by both versions.

Between the lines: The lack of abortion language in the Senate-passed version was seen as a key factor in the bill failing to clear the House last year.

  • House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Leader Erin Murphy have both voiced support for moving forward with more comprehensive language that includes abortion.

Yes, but: Kunesh said some of her Senate colleagues would prefer to work on a separate, stand-alone constitutional amendment on the issue. While talks are ongoing, she said, "some might not be willing to compromise," meaning it would be up to the House to take or leave the version the Senate passed.

The intrigue: There's still also internal disagreement on whether to put the measure on the 2026 ballot, as DFL leaders in both chambers support, or accelerate it for 2024.

Between the lines: Supporters are already taking steps toward launching a campaign, including filing paperwork for an eventual fundraising committee.

  • But backers acknowledge that this year's election is looking less and less likely, as national dollars and resources are committed to states that have already acted to put abortion measures on November's ballot.

Inside the room: The bill that passed the Senate is parked in a House committee, without the new language proposed earlier this year, as authors and advocates talk behind the scenes on how to square the divergent views.

  • "Our caucuses are very, very diverse, and we need to make sure that we've addressed the needs and the concerns of our members, and that they feel comfortable with what they are voting [for]," House author Kaohly Her (DFL-St. Paul) told Axios.

What we're hearing: With less than seven weeks left in the session, efforts to get the bill moving are picking up. Dozens of outside groups convened a call earlier this week on its status and path forward.

  • "Although there are many people who just love the new language, there are a couple of senators with nervous knees," longtime ERA champion Betty Folliard told Axios."Right now we've got Dems fighting Dems, and we need to come together for a meeting of the minds."

What we're watching: Both Her and Kunesh said they've been talking with colleagues and caucus leaders about the path forward.

  • The hope, Her said, is that the two chambers can reach a consensus and the House can pass the bill by the end of April.
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