MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Legislature isn't scheduled to reconvene until Feb. 12, but with the curtain barely down on the momentous 2023 session, there's already discussion about what lawmakers might do for an encore.
Democrats are proud they checked off all of the 30 biggest items on their ambitious agenda before the session adjourned Monday night. Gov. Tim Walz now has a big stack of budget bills that he plans to sign Wednesday.
The accomplishments include a $3 billion tax cut bill aimed mostly at families with children that's partly offset by higher sales and other taxes to support transportation and housing. Paid family and medical leave will make it easier for Minnesotans to take time off to care for loved ones or their own health, but employers will have to pay.
State aid for public schools will be indexed to keep pace with inflation. Lawmakers enacted extensive new environmental protections. Recreational marijuana will start becoming legal for adults on Aug. 1. And Democrats moved quickly to lock in protections for abortion rights.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said in an interview Tuesday that Democrats came into the session with seven big issues that they had developed over the previous three election cycles: education, health care, an economy that works for everyone, climate action, reproductive freedom, preventing gun violence and protecting democracy. When they won the “trifecta” of the governor's office and both chambers in November, they moved swiftly to turn their priorities into law.
“We haven’t had a lot of time to think about what are the additional things we could have done or should do," Hortman said. “That’ll be for a period of reflection over the summer.”
Hortman said she's personally proudest of the investments they made in education, particularly early education, after years of underfunding. She's also pleased with the additional money for K-12 education, special education and higher education, including free college for qualifying students.
Time ran out on an Equal Rights Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution and on legalizing sports betting, but the speaker said those issues are likely to return.
Bonding bills — borrowing packages for public infrastructure — are traditionally the highlight of legislative sessions in even-numbered years. The $2.6 billion that lawmakers passed Monday night set a record. But there could be more in 2024.
The 2023 Legislature was the most diverse ever, and it was reflected in the Democratic agenda. The People of Color and Indigenous Caucus hopes to use 2024 to build on efforts to make Minnesota a more inclusive and just state, and make further investments in Black and brown communities.
“We have about 30 BIPOC legislators across both the House and the Senate," Democratic Rep. Esther Agbaje, of Minneapolis, told reporters Monday. "There’s plenty of ideas that will still be coming forward.”
Several laws passed this session with a focus on helping people of color. They included driver’s licenses for all regardless of immigration status, an ethnic studies curriculum for schools, protecting workers in meatpacking plants and warehouses, and expunging records for marijuana convictions.
But Democratic Rep. Cedrick Frazier, of New Hope, told reporters there's still much to be done.
“The disparities that we see in our state didn’t happen overnight... So the work to close those disparities, it will take the next several years, decades," Frazier said.
The top Republican in the Senate, Minority Leader Mark Johnson, would like to see more inclusion extended to the GOP. He said he had hoped Democrats would be willing to compromise, given their narrow majorities. But he called it one of the most partisan sessions ever.
“What Minnesotans wanted to see is a government that worked together, and we didn’t have that unity this year," Johnson told reporters Monday night.
Johnson said the bonding bill marked the biggest bipartisan success. It came together only after Republicans dropped their demands for bigger tax cuts and settled for aid to nursing homes instead.
Hortman disputed GOP claims that they were frozen out. She provided a spreadsheet Democrats have kept showing that 40 bills passed unanimously, 39 passed with at least some GOP votes and 27 passed with Republican amendments included. She said GOP Reps. Nolan West, of Blaine, and Greg Davids, of Preston, were “pivotal” in shaping the final cannabis and tax bills, respectively.
Lawmakers might need to come back for a special session this summer to deal with what happens to the University of Minnesota’s hospitals and clinics if the proposed merger of the Minnesota-based Fairview and South Dakota-based Sanford health systems goes through. Undoing the 1997 marriage of Fairview with the university’s medical school and health facilities to keep control in Minnesota will be complicated.
If the university needs money to buy back its medical assets for example, she said, lawmakers will want to see a turnaround plan before they agree to a special session.
“We don’t want to just put money into a system that is going to keep losing money,” she said.
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