Daily Digest: Distracted driving bills moving

Good morning, and happy Thursday. Here’s the Digest.

1. How tough is too tough on distracted driving? Two bills to discourage drivers from picking up their phones advanced Wednesday in the Minnesota Senate, where prior attempts to crack down on the practice have languished. It underscored how the effort to limit cell phone use behind the wheel has emerged as a top concern this session. Legislative leaders are predicting something will pass into law this year, but how far lawmakers will go to punish the practice is still in question. The Senate Transportation Committee endorsed a bill to make clear that only hands-free phone use is acceptable by motorists. It aligns with a bill already traveling through the state House.  But the panel also backed a bill by Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound,  that would impose fines up to $500 on repeat offenders and make prison time possible for distracted drivers in serious crashes. “Some people are getting five days in jail or maybe a couple of months in jail for in essence destroying another family, and I think it’s just deplorable that such light penalties can be given for such important impacts,” Osmek said. Osmek’s legislation could be a tougher sell than the straight prohibition. Some lawmakers have flinched at turning the offense into a possible felony, which could be charged if a negligent driver causes a death where the phone is a contributing factor. Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, is the sponsor of the more-restrained bill. He said he didn’t seek to increase the penalties for distracted driving because passing a hands-free measure has proven hard enough. (MPR News)

2. Pedal to the metal. Speed limits on most rural, two-lane highways in Minnesota are increasing from 55 mph to 60 mph. And yes, it’s safe, state officials say, following a five-year study. The increased speed limit on some 5,240 miles of state highways — that’s 77 percent of state two-laners — is effective as soon as signs go up. In fact, many are already up, and installations will continue through the spring, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. In 2014, the Legislature directed MNDOT to study whether speed limits could be safely increased. That study just finished, concluding that it is safe for most stretches of road. MNDOT wasn’t actually required to increase the speed limit — the measure passed by lawmakers said the transportation commissioner “may” increase them. But once traffic engineers looked at the data, it became clear that on many stretches of these roads, folks were already driving like the speed limit was 60, and doing so safely. It turns out everyone was already speeding anyway. The study, which examined 68 locations on highways where the same change was made years before, found that increasing the speed limit from 55 to 60 wouldn’t actually change how folks drive a whole lot. When the signs said 55, the average speed for all vehicles was 59 mph, and 85 percent of vehicles were going 65 mph or slower. (Pioneer Press)

3. Supporters of the ERA try again. Momentum for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, a vestige of 1970s activism, is building in the Minnesota Legislature and across the U.S. Two ERA bills will get a hearing Thursday in the House Government Operations Committee. One would ask voters to decide on Nov. 3, 2020, whether to add the ERA to the Minnesota Constitution. The other would request that Congress extend the deadline for ratification of a national ERA. “We need to get this done,” said Rep. Rena Moran, D-St. Paul, sponsor of the national ERA measure. “Having gender equity embedded in our … constitutions is still needed.” Both measures were introduced in the Legislature’s 2018 session and went nowhere. Proponents hope that action in the House, now under Democrats’ control, will create impetus in the Senate, where Republicans remain in charge. (Star Tribune)

4. Groups push lawmakers for more housing money. The debate over affordable housing across Minnesota made its way to the Minnesota Capitol Wednesday, as groups lined up to push for hundreds of millions of dollars in investments they say is long overdue. At a press conference, members of the Homes For All Coalition asked for $430 million to address housing shortages around the state, particularly in greater Minnesota. The state has a projected $1.5 billion surplus as the governor and Legislature begin setting the next two-year budget. “Where we live impacts everything because there is just not enough funding in the actual greater Minnesota and rural areas,” said Jordan May, executive director of the Red Lake Homeless Shelter on the northern Minnesota reservation. He said he was homeless himself for four years.”It helped me really realize how many people are homeless and how there’s an actual need for housing resources in our rural area of greater Minnesota,” May added. The Homes For All coalition is a group of businesses, local housing authorities and social service organizations. They brought their pitch to the Housing Finance and Policy Committee in the House on Wednesday, an all-new committee in the DFL-controlled chamber. (MPR News)

5. Shutdown adds to immigration court backlog. Thanks to a partial government shutdown that began over an immigration policy dispute, the Bloomington immigration court has had to cancel nearly 1,000 hearings, adding to its backlog of immigration cases. The longer immigration judges stay furloughed, the more the backlog grows. Hearings for those out of detention have been canceled for a later, undetermined date, while individuals held in federal custody continue to go to court. Minnesota has a backlog of 8,547 cases, a 6.6 percent increase from 2018 and a 40 percent jump from 2017, according to data from TRAC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center at Syracuse University that collects immigration data. The immigration court in Bloomington, which covers Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, has had 959 hearings canceled as of Jan. 11, according to the research. Nationally, the estimated number of cancellations has reached 42,726. Immigration attorneys continue to file motions as if cases are moving forward because they don’t know when hearings will resume. Even the most routine filings that need federal immigration judges’ approval are sitting idle because the judges are not allowed to act. (MPR News)

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