What's in store when Minnesota Legislature reconvenes Jan. 3?
The reality of DFL control of state government became immediately apparent after Election Day, but what exactly can we expect lawmakers and the governor to do in the coming months?
ST. PAUL — Election season has faded away and state senators and representatives are getting ready to head back to the Minnesota Legislature. When lawmakers return to St. Paul on Jan. 3, dynamics at the Capitol will look a lot different than they typically have over the last few decades.
Now that Democrats have complete control of state government for the first time since 2014 — only the second time in more than 30 years — they’ll be able to pursue their plans to increase funding for education, create a paid family and medical leave program and codify abortion protections into law.
And while there's no guarantee, the odds for legal adult-use marijuana and sports betting also appear to have improved with the new alignment at the Capitol, where Democrats have a 70-64 majority over Republicans in the House and a 34-33 majority in the Senate. Republicans controlled the Senate since 2017.
That reality became apparent immediately after Election Day, but what exactly can we expect lawmakers and the governor to do in the coming months?
One thing is certain: 2023 is an odd year, so they’ll have to get a more than $50 billion state budget together for the next two years, as the current biennial budget ends June 30, 2023. State government runs out of funding and shuts down if the governor doesn’t sign budget bills into law by that date.
Of particular note is the whopping $17.6 billion projected budget surplus, over which Gov. Tim Walz and Democratic-Farmer-Labor majorities in the Senate and House will have significant sway. Boosting funding for education, day care programs and a leave program are general points they all generally agree upon. Finer details of the agenda will come into sharper focus when the governor releases his budget recommendations in January.
While there's no exact figure yet, House Speaker Melissa Hortman said with the surplus she expects significant investments in public education.
"We'll see if we can move on a chunk of that early and fast because we know that there are school districts that will be facing deficits at the end of this year," she said. "The state has the ability to support them better and we will do that."
Where DFLers disagree may be one of the more interesting points of the upcoming session. Four Senate Democrats have supported eliminating the income tax on Social Security payments, something Republicans have also backed. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic said she was concerned the cuts could cost the state $500 million, and other Democrats have said they wouldn't want to cut the tax for top earners. Walz said he does not support completely eliminating the tax.
Another potential point of departure among Democrats is Walz's proposal to give back part of the state's historic surplus to taxpayers in the form of direct payments. The governor has proposed direct payments to Minnesotans in checks of $1,000 per individual and $2,000 for families. So far, that proposal has been met with a lukewarm reception from his fellow Democrats in the Legislature.
Dziedzic and soon-to-be House Majority Leader Jamie Long in early December said they respected the governor's proposal but that their caucuses hadn't reached any decision on whether they'd back the checks. Speaker Hortman echoed that language.
"I certainly respect the governor's point of view on that and when you do have one-time money, I think it is important to look at what can we do to help people with inflation," Hortman said. "The concern that I've heard from within my caucus is that some people really need help right now and some people are doing just fine ... think my caucus I would say is more passionate about putting one time money into housing or, you know, freezing college tuition or helping people afford day care."
One area where Republicans could have more sway is over any infrastructure borrowing, or bonding bills, which requires a three-fifths supermajority in both chambers to pass. Typically, those bills are passed in even-numbered years, but the divided government wrapped up the 2022 session with much left on the table, including the bonding bill and what remained of the $9.25 billion surplus which has since grown to its eye-popping present size.
And when it comes to borrowing for infrastructure projects, Hortman has signaled House Democrats might be interested in using the surplus to pay for projects outright, eliminating the need for a supermajority.
Another priority for DFL lawmakers in Minnesota is establishing a paid family and medical leave program. It’s not yet certain what paid leave legislation could look like in Minnesota, but recent proposals give some indication of what future bills could look like.
A previous plan from House Democrats would create a state program that would offer up to 12 weeks of partially paid time off for family reasons such as a new child or a seriously ill or dying relative. It would also provide up to 12 weeks of medical leave, including for pregnancy complications. The initial startup would cost more than $1.7 billion in the first two years, according to nonpartisan legislative research.
The election of a 34-33 Democratic majority in the Senate opened up doors for plenty of new possibilities at the Capitol, though incoming Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said the Democrats' narrow lead means Republicans will still have some sway in the chamber.
"They're going to have some folks that probably see things close to the way that we do and we're going to have an opportunity," he said. "I foresee having a larger role than most minorities in helping to devise what our Senate policy looks like."
Incoming House Minority Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said it's too early to tell which issues some DFLers might side with Republicans on, though she sees room for common ground on police recruitment and retention.
"The makeup of the legislature has changed quite a bit just with new members coming in, so I would say that remains to be seen where people are actually going to land once we get into session and start doing the work," Demuth said. "You hear on the campaign trail where people are at and it's always interesting when we actually get back into session and listen to where people will end."
There are many new faces in the House this year. Hortman said a third of her caucus is new to the Legislature. Demuth said 25 of the 64 Republicans are also at the Capitol for the first time.
Legal pot, abortion, and other issues
Fiscal issues are far from the only item on the agenda in 2023, however. The legalization of recreational adult-use marijuana may have its best shot yet in Minnesota yet this year, some advocates have said. Speaker Hortman has said her caucus supports a recreational marijuana bill and believed it would pass in the coming session.
Meanwhile, Walz has said one of the first things he hopes to get done in 2023 is sign a marijuana bill. Senate Democrats, who have a narrower majority than House Democrats have remained quieter on the issue.
It isn’t just DFL control of state government that has changed possibilities in the upcoming session. The types of Democrats in the House could also shift the balance on abortion.
A handful of Democrats who opposed abortion have either retired or lost their seats to Republicans, shifting the balance in the House in favor of abortion rights. Meanwhile, Republicans lost seats in suburban districts, allowing Democrats to preserve their majority.
Abortion remains a constitutional right in Minnesota under a 1995 Minnesota Supreme Court Decision, but DFLers, including Hortman, want to reinforce protections through legislation and putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2024.
One option for Democrats would be to pass legislation similar to the Protect Reproductive Options Act, a bill introduced in the 2021 legislative session that never gained any traction due to obstacles in the House and Republican control of the Senate. That bill would establish rights to contraception, abortion and privacy in state law.
A few other priorities? Hortman said DFLers hope to pass gun control legislation, including expanded background checks for gun purchases and red flag laws — which allow courts to temporarily suspend a person's gun rights if they pose imminent danger to others. They also want to implement a 100% clean energy standard in Minnesota by 2040.
Another possibility in 2023 is the legalization of mobile and brick-and-mortar sports betting in Minnesota. In the last session, the House passed a bipartisan sports betting proposal that would have put the industry in the hands of the state’s tribal casinos.
A competing proposal in the Republican-controlled Senate also passed, but the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association objected to its inclusion of two Twin Cities area horse tracks.
The governor said he wouldn’t sign sports betting legislation not supported by the state’s tribal nations, and so the issue remained on the table in the Legislature.