Minnesota 2024 legislative session kicks off in St. Paul: Here's what to expect

Lawmakers in the Minnesota House chamber
The Minnesota House debated a capital improvements bill on the last day of the 2023 session on May 22, 2023.
Matthew Alvarez | MPR News 2023

The gavels struck at noon Monday in the Minnesota House and Senate chambers, beginning the 2024 Minnesota legislative session.

Last session saw a plethora of policy and spending wins for Minnesota Democrats. They passed dozens of long-sought changes, from abortion protections to recreational cannabis and boosted spending across state government, from universal school meals to modest tax rebates.

But this year, it sounds like they’re slimming down their agenda

Minnesota Republicans, who are seeking to win back the state House in November, see the session as a chance to sharpen their campaign messaging.

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MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with MPR News politics editor Brian Bakst about what to expect.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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We attempt to make transcripts for Minnesota Now available the next business day after a broadcast. When ready they will appear here.

Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: The 2024 Minnesota legislative session gaveled to order just a few minutes ago at noon. Last session saw a plethora of policy and spending wins for Minnesota Democrats. Lawmakers passed dozens of long-sought changes, from abortion protections to legalizing recreational cannabis. Lawmakers also boosted spending across state government, from universal school meals to modest tax rebates.

But this year, it sounds like they're slimming down their agenda. Minnesota Republicans who were seeking to win back the State House in November see the session as a chance to sharpen their campaign messaging. MPR News Politics Editor Brian Bakst joins us right now to fill us in on what to expect.

Well, I noticed that House Speaker Melissa Hortman had an unusual metaphor to describe the Democrats' approach to the legislature this year, Brian. Let's hear it.

MELISSA HORTMAN: If you think about budget year 2023, it is like a snake eating a hedgehog. For a while, the snake is not going to be eating anything else, not like a mouse or anything, because it has to digest the hedgehog. So we really have to see, across a broad range of government programs, how the investments that we made will impact people's lives.

CATHY WURZER: And how do you interpret that, Brian?

BRIAN BAKST: Oh, the mind could wander, Cathy. But the basic point is that we shouldn't expect the bill-passing bonanza of a year ago to continue this year. Part of it is that the two-year budget was approved a year ago and that there were considerable increases in spending, a bunch of new programs established, and just a lot of work for agencies to carry out.

DFL leaders say they're sensitive to that workload, and they don't want to pile more on. But they also want to keep the agenda as compact as possible to avoid clashes or other things that might spoil their messaging heading into the campaign. And Cathy, on the topic of food, Governor Tim Walz was outside the House chamber just a few minutes ago passing out apple blondie bars with maple cinnamon glaze to lawmakers as they came in. It continues his tradition of sweet treat diplomacy at the outset of legislative sessions.

CATHY WURZER: A little Minnesota nice before session gets underway in earnest, obviously. So in a sense, are Democrats playing it safe, Brian, heading into the election?

BRIAN BAKST: I think they're trying to. Legislative sessions don't always go according to plan. But as much as they can, they'd like to just keep things really focused this year.

CATHY WURZER: Let's talk about bills, shall we? There's a hearing tonight on a school resource officer measure, which has been a contentious topic in the past, obviously. What's going to happen at that hearing, do you think?

BRIAN BAKST: Well, we'll get a good sense of whether this fix is one that can satisfy all sides. The original bill was designed to rule out chokeholds or other restraints that many lawmakers say don't belong in schools. But that law approved last year caused many police departments to pause their relationship with school districts. They pulled out officers. And that caused an outcry among parents who worried that it would hurt school safety. The bill being discussed in committee later today calls for more definition around the school resource officer role, some model policies, and establish training.

CATHY WURZER: There is immigration legislation that would make the state a sanctuary state. I hear it's facing resistance.

BRIAN BAKST: Yeah. This is a political dicey topic for Democrats. A coalition of mostly Twin Cities area lawmakers want the state to give immigrants more peace of mind by barring state and local law enforcement from aiding in federal action that could lead to deportation. They say it makes people at risk of immigration actions hesitant to seek help in emergencies if they're worried that they might get turned over to immigration authorities.

But given the tenor of the national immigration debate, some DFLers from more moderate rural districts have concerns the bill will be used as a hammer against them come election time. A couple have already come out against the bill, including a first-term Iron Range senator, Grant Hauschild.

CATHY WURZER: There was a hearing prior to session, which was a little unusual, in the House on the Medical Aid in Dying bill, which has been brought up in a number of different sessions in the past. It hasn't gone anywhere. Is that going to be one of the-- one of the bills that may pass this session? Is it kind of a sleeper issue, in a sense?

BRIAN BAKST: If nothing else, it will get some hearings. And in fact, it did get that presession hearing. And there are some members on both sides willing to give this one a look. So Minnesota wouldn't be the first state to go down this road. So there is some experience of other states that lawmakers are trying to look at.

CATHY WURZER: Tweaking of the recently passed cannabis legislation this session?

BRIAN BAKST: Yes. Some of the folks who are running the Office of Cannabis Management now want the legislature to consider temporary licensure for either growers or retailers or both. And they say that their rules might not be ready for consideration until the summer, which would take the process in the winter. And they're worried that it will just push the timeline back.

So they say they want to be ready to go so that sales can start early next year. But it might not be possible if there isn't sufficient product or the ability of businesses to be ready to open. And there are also some changes being sought in the cannabis law around what restaurants can offer patrons and whether they can serve both THC beverages and alcoholic beverages to the same customers.

CATHY WURZER: Of course, this is a bonding session now, for folks who don't know what that means. The big budget session was last year, right? So now we're talking about this package of public infrastructure and how to pay for it.

BRIAN BAKST: Yeah, typically, in the even-numbered years, which this is, the lawmakers consider this massive proposal. And in the past, they've passed ones that are more than $1 billion. This year they're looking right around $1 billion because they passed one last year as well.

But this is a-- a lot of local communities come forward with help for their wastewater plants or their civic centers. And then there's also the construction for state agencies or college campuses. There are billions of dollars in requests. But as I mentioned, there's an eye around $1 billion-- $1 billion at most-- of those construction projects. And so this one will take some finagling to get through because it also requires 3/5 majorities in both the House and Senate. So Republicans have to be on board for something to pass.

CATHY WURZER: So speaking of lawmakers being on board on different issues, Democrats barely hold the majority in the Senate by one seat. And one dissenting Democratic senator could really tip the scales there. Any bills that you see on the horizon that could fail to pass because of this very thin margin?

BRIAN BAKST: Well, as we mentioned, that immigration proposal seems to have an uphill climb because one Senator has already come out. There might be others who are also on the verge of declaring their opposition. That's a big one right there. And neither the House nor the Senate majorities are all that wide.

But as you note, the Senate in particular requires unity among Democrats to get many bills, especially the controversial ones, through. So if any DFLer comes out against legislation, it can be a real blow to chances because Republicans haven't been very helpful in giving their votes to things that they are generally opposed to.

CATHY WURZER: State Republicans, while you're on the issue here, have been pretty divided since they lost control of the Senate, which was in, what, 2022. Have they sent some of their differences aside this year as they head toward an election?

BRIAN BAKST: Only the House is on the ballot this year. So we're seeing a lot of folks in the House really kind of hone in on a few things. There's the size of the spending that the legislature did last year. There's the state office building expansion that they're honing in on. And there are a few other things that they think-- the state flag.

So they're really trying to find things that they can coalesce messaging around and really tap into what they see as some voter frustration with what the all-DFL power structure did. But they're also having-- you know, they're going to be at the whim of the national winds. And former president Donald Trump looks like he's going to be the Republican nominee. That isn't necessarily the choice of many suburban Republicans. And so there's going to be some attempts to distance themselves from the national ticket.

CATHY WURZER: What will you be watching-- for a final question here-- Senator Kari Dziedzic had to step aside in the Senate-- Senate leader there because of a reoccurrence of her ovarian cancer. Senator Erin Murphy took over as Senate majority leader. What are you going to be watching for? What's the impact of this very much last-minute shuffling in leadership?

BRIAN BAKST: Well, those two lawmakers have different styles. And Senator Dziedzic really was kind of a hang back and let her members be in front of the cameras and do a lot of talking. It'll be interesting to see if Senator Erin Murphy, who has run statewide campaigns in the past, is a more visible presence for that caucus.

And also, just keeping that unity together-- the 34-seat majority is really tenuous. And we saw with some of the health issues that other lawmakers have faced that at any given time, if a lawmaker is out, it can really disrupt the flow of the session.

CATHY WURZER: Exactly. Brian, thank you.

BRIAN BAKST: You're welcome, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Brian Bakst is our politics editor for MPR News. By the way, they've got a great newsletter. And you can sign up for it at mprnews.org. It's the Capitol View newsletter.

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