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Jefferson High School graduate wants to close loophole allowing legislators to drive drunk

Hope Baker (left), a Jefferson High School graduate who is now attending Concordia College in St. Paul, is among a group of students that’s trying to close a loophole in the Minnesota Constitution that allows legislators to drive drunk in some circumstances. Others shown include (left to right) Representive Ryan Winkler and students Adam Goinz, Margaret Zirbel, Akolade Gbadamosi and Jordan Strickland. (Contributed)1 / 2
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A 2010 graduate of Jefferson High School is trying to close a loophole that allows state legislators to drive drunk in some circumstances.

Hope Baker is among eight Concordia University-St. Paul political science students who are trying to pass the Legislator Immunity Act of 2014 (HF 2282).

The legislation cleared a hurdle last week when it was passed by a House public safety committee, 11-2.

On Tuesday night, it’s scheduled to go before the Senate.

The legislation was researched and drafted by the students who are giving up their week-long “spring break” to testify at the Minnesota Capitol.

The Minnesota State Constitution, Article 4 Section 10, allows for current sitting legislators to be exempt from arrest during the legislative session, except for for breach of peace, treason or a felony. It's believed that the protection was originally created to prevent political leaders from having members of a rival party arrested before key votes were taken.

According to the students, this is an age-old perk at the Minnesota Capitol, and it’s time has run out.

“Legislator immunity was created by our founding forefathers and we believe its purpose is historic, but not for allowing legislators to get behind a truck wheel and drive drunk,” the students said.

The legislative immunity privilege gives lawmakers a potential pass on most offenses except in the cases of treason, breach of peace, or for a felony. The students' legislation would classify drunk driving as a breach of peace. 

The students testified that there have been long-standing jokes around the Capitol about legislators’ equivalent of the “Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free” cards.

“We don’t find any of [the jokes] funny,” the students said. “In fact, we find it pretty shocking that current legislators we have spoken to about this privilege have told us, ‘I would rather have a legislator drive drunk then miss a vote!’ ”

According to the National Highway Traffic Administration, every 90 seconds, a person is injured in a drunken driving related crash, the students noted.

The Legislator Immunity Act of 2014 will not only stop drinking and driving, but will also help ensure that every Minnesotan is held to the same standard, the students said.

“Driving safe should be everyone’s responsibility, including our state legislators,” the students said.

The students said the majority of legislators would never think of using this outdated privilege and support the legislation.

Baker said that State Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, fully supports the students’ proposal.

“Our goal isn’t to slam the door on after-hours bipartisan ‘fun;’ our goal is to do what is right,” the students said. “Turning a blind eye to legislative immunity allows legislators to reach levels of aristocracy which is clearly unacceptable, and against every American value instilled in our society.”

The House bill is chief authored by Representative Ryan Winkler (D) and coauthored by Representatives Nena Moran, Linda Slocum, Zachary Dorholt, Tony Cornish, Mike Freiberg and Steve Drazkowski.

In the Senate, the companion bill is chief authored by Chairwoman Kathy Sherran and coauthored by Ingebrigtsen and Greg Clausen.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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