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College students lobby to close drunk driving loophole for legislators

Hope Baker (from left), Rep. Ryan Winkler, Adam Goinz, Margaret Zirbel, Akolade Gbadamosi and Jordan Strickland are working to refine language in the Minnesota Constitution that allows legislators to drive drunk in some circumstances. Submitted Photo

ST. PAUL — A group of college students is seeking to close a loophole that allows state legislators to drive drunk in some circumstances.

The eight political science students from Concordia University in St. Paul are trying to pass the Legislator Immunity Act of 2014.

The legislation cleared a hurdle last week when it was referred to the House public safety committee on an 11-2 vote. It’s scheduled for another House hearing Thursday.

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 sitting legislators to be exempt from arrest during the legislative session, unless it’s 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 Capitol, and its 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 the wheel and drive drunk,” the students said.

The students’ legislation would classify drunk driving as a breach of peace.

They testified that there have been long-standing jokes around the Capitol about legislators’ equivalent of “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 than miss a vote!’”

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

The Legislator Immunity Act would not only penalize legislators for drinking and driving, but 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.

One of the students, Hope Baker, said state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, fully supports the 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 chiefly authored by Rep. Ryan Winkler and co-authored by Reps. Nena Moran, Linda Slocum, Zachary Dorholt, Tony Cornish, Mike Freiberg and Steve Drazkowski.

In the Senate, the companion bill is chiefly authored by Sen. Kathy Sherran and co-authored 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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