Members of the Minnesota Legislature were sworn in for the 2023 legislative session on Tuesday, marking a shift in political power at the Capitol and a broader pool of demographic representation among policymakers.
All 201 state lawmakers handed in their election certificates and prepared to start the work of the session: including writing a two-year state budget, grappling with how to use the state’s record $17.6 billion budget surplus and weighing re-writes to a host of Minnesota laws.
And it felt like a more typical first day of session, as lobbyists, concerned citizens and lawmakers’ families packed the building for celebrations, rallies and demonstrations now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.
With Democrats in control of all three levers of power at the Capitol, the agenda has shifted. And DFL leaders highlighted some of their top priorities Tuesday.
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Efforts to codify the right to an abortion, conform the state tax code to federal law and ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth are at the top of the docket. The goal is to pass the early tax bill next week to make 2022 income tax filing more simple and head off the need for amended returns.
“We want to help build an economy that works for all. We heard on the doors that people are concerned about their freedoms and their rights, and they don't want them chipped away. And we want strong schools and safe communities and a healthy climate,” Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, told reporters. “So we're going to get to work. I think we're going to look at a variety of different bills.”
Those early bills are expected to be introduced Wednesday and could come up for committee hearings later this week, DFL leaders said. But other priorities, such as approving tax rebate checks and legalizing marijuana for recreational use could take more time.
Many of the proceedings Tuesday were procedural and ceremonial, as lawmakers swore their oaths of office in private ceremonies with family and friends and met on the House and Senate floors to set rules and elect new leaders.
There were new ceremonies as well. Indigenous community leaders held a drum circle and round dance to honor the Native American women elected to serve in the Legislature.
The new crop of lawmakers brought a series of firsts at the Capitol: including the first time both chambers are set to be led by women, the first person of color elected president of the Senate, the largest group of people of color to serve in the Legislature (35 of 201), 11 lawmakers who identify as LGBTQ and a record number of female lawmakers.
“Today we make history by swearing in the most diverse group of legislators that Minnesota has ever seen,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said. “Minnesota state government is increasingly reflective of the people of Minnesota and I am grateful to be a part of that.”
Rep. Ethan Cha, DFL-Woodbury, is set to join eight other legislators who have Hmong backgrounds. And he said the new make-up would serve the state well.
“I think it's a great opportunity for the state of Minnesota to have fresh ideas and new legislators coming in. And I think it's going to be, you know, a great future for Minnesota,” Cha said.
Hours before the House and Senate began the session, interest groups started holding news conferences and meeting with legislators in hopes of winning them over on their proposals. They hoisted signs that welcomed legislators and handed them cookies as they entered the legislative chambers.
With a historic budget surplus and a new power structure in St. Paul, some groups said they had a new sense of hope for 2023.
That includes those pushing for new laws restricting access to guns.
“It’s the year with the trifecta, so we have some real hope that we can get our bills moved out of the House and into the Senate for some hearings, so we’re just really excited to be here,” said Moms Demand Action Minnesota Chapter Director Molly Leutz. “This is something that the DFL has led on in the past and we’re hopeful that it’s a priority.”
Likewise, Marcus Harcus, an advocate for legalizing marijuana, said he had trouble sleeping Monday night because he was so excited about the new and improved prospects for passing a plan this year.
DFL leaders on Tuesday said they likely wouldn’t be able to satisfy everyone but they’d try to tackle as many needs as they could this year.
“While I’m sure there will be more requests than we have money for. But I think we're going to be able to fulfill a lot of the meet needs of Minnesotans,” House Majority Leader Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, said. “I think we're going to try to deliver early and deliver often.”
GOP leaders said they hoped to work across the partisan divide and welcomed the new chance to partner with Democrats on some proposals. But they expressed skepticism about some of the ideas coming from the DFL.
Ahead of a Thursday hearing on a bill to codify the right to an abortion, House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said the DFL plan went too far.
“We are a pro life caucus, and we're very proud of that. But we need to have conversations,” Demuth said. “I do know that Minnesotans are not extreme. Abortion should not be legal up till the moment of birth.”
Also on Tuesday, Gov. Tim Walz again walked the Capitol halls with First Lady Gwen Walz and handed out pumpkin chocolate chip bars to lawmakers.
He welcomed the new officeholders and tried to find policies where they could work together as he scooped treats from their pans.
“Bars for the team,” the governor said to new lawmakers in the House of Representatives. “Congratulations. You look good in here.”