MN Legislature charges ahead on quick-strike bills

A room full of people place their hands to their hearts
House Minority leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring and other lawmakers during the first day of the 2023 legislative session, Tuesday in St. Paul. Several bills are already moving through legislative committees.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Despite a significant number of newcomers to office — almost 30 percent — the Legislature isn’t easing into its business.

The first weeks are usually filled with informational hearings: what state agencies do, what are the trend lines in programs, what are gaps that might need addressing. Some of that is happening, but in just the first week there have already been pointed debates and committee votes on a bill to shore up abortion rights, one to speed through $100 million in tax filing deductions and another to put a measure of inflation back into economic forecasting.

Of the express-lane bills, the tax proposal could reach a final vote this week. Gov. Tim Walz’s administration wants it done by Friday if possible to allow for needed updates to income tax filing forms and software. 

“We’ll be taking up that bill and passing it in the House on Monday and working with the Senate to get it through the Senate as quickly as we can,” DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said Friday.

woman speaking on a microphone with the U.S flag
Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman addresses the house floor after being re-elected during the first day of the 2023 legislative session, Tuesday, January. 3, 2023, in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The abortion bill, which also covers access to contraception and fertility services, might not be far behind. Democrats made it the first bill introduced in both chambers. 

A bill to provide another half year of unemployment benefits to laid off iron ore industry workers has its first hearing this week and is deemed a priority. 

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As for the inflation plan, there is some urgency there because key lawmakers want to pass it before state finance officials prepare a February economic forecast. It might make a future surplus appear smaller but better account for cost increases in delivering services.

Other prominent issues are drawing early attention as well, although they will no doubt take a bit more time to get to resolution. They include:

  • A proposal to allow people to get driver’s licenses regardless of their immigration status.

  • A bill to restore voting rights to felons upon their release from incarceration rather than their completion of a sentence, including probation.

  • A plan to stabilize the long-term care and disability work forces by accelerating rate adjustments around industry wages.

  • A bill to put up state matching money for federal infrastructure aid.

The proposal to make cannabis use legal for anybody over age 21 and that clears records of people with past marijuana offenses. 

The marijuana bill gets its first hearing Wednesday in the House Commerce Committee.

DFL leaders are certainly sensitive to the possibility the legalization bill could siphon attention away from other aspects of their session agenda. They understand the public is tuned into the marijuana discussion. It’s an easy one to grasp and would represent a monumental shift in drug policy. 

Because it has so many committees to clear, it will be up for discussion a lot.

But DFLers say their economic security agenda is more important to them. They hope the public also recognizes their work on paid family leave, school support, mental health and more.

Many of those items won’t occupy lawmakers’ time until Walz releases a two-year budget proposal that backs up the vision he cast during his inaugural address a week ago.

Walz has until Jan. 24 to submit that plan to the Legislature.

Expect him to dribble out some details as soon as this week. He’s hinting at a major executive branch rework to break down agency silos around programs for children and vulnerable families, describing it as a “transformational reforming of government around the idea of having it be easier one-stop shopping if you will for children and families.” 

“You're going to see a holistic approach to whether it's housing, whether it's health care access, whether it's food access, whether it's pre-K, child care, whether it's all of those things to make life better,” Walz said in an appearance at a Minnesota Council of Nonprofits event on Friday. “This is about improving lives and having the opportunity to do it.”

Tim walz offer a pumpkin blondies
Gov. Tim Walz is set to introduce a two-year budget proposal that backs up the vision he cast during his inaugural address a week ago.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

As the session kicked off, there were ample nods to a change in tone at the Capitol, with mostly new leaders in place and narrow majorities to keep in mind. It’s always hard to gauge if that will bear out after just one week when calls for consensus have yet to be tested.

Both parties are preaching cooperation

“This institution is made up of members and those members change. The institution changes those members and the members change the institution,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson said last week. “Today we’re turning over a new leaf, a new opportunity to come here and help Minnesotans.”

DFL Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic urged her colleagues in an opening day message to  “put the campaign behind us. We’re here to govern.”

“We are going to have some good lively debates. I have no doubt about that. But I hope we can do it in a way that is civil and shows genuine respect,” she said. “Respect for each other, respect for the institution and respect for our constituents.”

people gathering on second floor watching other people playing instruments
Leaders from several Indigenous communities are celebrating incoming Indigenous and Native state lawmakers with a drum circle and friendship dance during the first day of the 2023 Legislative session, Tuesday in St. Paul. The Capitol has been very busy with DFLers introducing bills over the first week.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

The fact is, an all-DFL power structure means that the party calls the shots.

Rep. Dave Baker, a Republican who has a history of cross-party collaboration, told the  Minnesota Council of Nonprofits virtual gathering that members of his party shouldn’t be ignored.

“I hope that our voices are heard because we have some important things to share. It’s not always about saying no. We want to work without our colleagues,” Baker said. “But we really have a lot of  things to work through this session, and we have a lot of progressive ideas coming through the House very, very quickly.”

Hortman has been among those saying they want to bring Republicans into the conversation. But she compared past efforts to secure bipartisan backing to an enduring Peanuts comic strip storyline with characters Charlie Brown and Lucy, where the football is pulled back at the last minute. DFLers are Charlie Brown in this analogy, she said. 

“I’m not handing Lucy the football anymore,” Hortman said, alluding directly to a construction projects bill that typically needs a supermajority to pass.

“If necessary, we can do a cash bonding bill without Republican participation. This trifecta will not allow Republicans to be an obstacle to doing work for people in Minnesota. Now, having said that, there are a lot of great Republicans that we have strong collaborative relationships with.”