Updated: 5:55 a.m.
As Gov. Tim Walz last week signed into law a bill that extends unemployment benefits for mineworkers in northern Minnesota, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan joked that it was just a warm up for what’s to come.
“You should have a sore hand,” Flanagan said, alluding to bills that could soon come up for Walz’s signature.
“That’s right,” Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, added. “Record productivity is our aim.”
As they enter the second month of the legislative session this week, Democrats at the Capitol say they're ready to keep the pedal to the metal. And given their current rate of moving bills, they’re on track to hit that record productivity target, at least in terms of recent history.
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“We’re moving fast, but we’re addressing that concern that Minnesotans have raised for as long as I’ve been here, that they don’t want the Legislature to cram everything in the last five weeks,” Hortman told reporters. “The more we do now, the less we have to do in April and May.”
Hortman on Friday highlighted the above-average rate at which leaders have ushered bills through committees and to the House and Senate floors for votes. The House has approved seven bills so far, while the Senate has passed four. And dozens more are set to come up for a vote in the next few weeks.
Typically the first year of the two-year legislative session starts slowly, with new members and veterans getting lots of overviews of state agencies and programs. That has not been the case this year.
And with the DFL in control of the House, Senate and governor’s office, the path is open to move more bills across the finish line that previously would’ve hit a wall under divided control. Hortman and other DFL lawmakers said leaders will keep up the rapid pace.
“The era of gridlock is over. Minnesotans are seeing their Legislature work hard and solve problems,” Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids said on Twitter. “It’s what voters have been asking for as long as I’ve been doing this work. It’s exciting and exhausting.”
The Minnesota Senate on Friday passed a bill enshrining in law the right to an abortion, and that heads to the governor for his signature this week, along with a proposal banning discrimination based on someone’s hair texture or style, the CROWN Act.
This week the Senate is expected to vote on a bill that adds prosecutors to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office to handle criminal cases, and one that allows the state to use funding from the federal infrastructure law.
And the House is expected to take votes this week to allow people in the country without authorization to obtain a driver’s license and to make Juneteenth a state holiday. The House is also on the cusp of debating proposals that could restore the right to vote to felons who’ve served out their jail or prison term and to set up a state system to let workers accrue paid sick days.
Advocacy groups that pressed on the issues and DFL lawmakers who have been waiting to get them across the finish line say the moves are a long time in the making. But groups opposing the measures and GOP lawmakers say Democrats are misreading the results of last year’s election.
“A casual observer watching the committees and watching the floor session might get the impression that Democrats were given an overwhelming majority and the ability to ram this radical and fundamental bill through that affects everyday Minnesotans,” Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said during the debate on the abortion bill, noting the DFL’s one-vote edge in the Senate.
Johnson said he worried that major policy measures are moving without lawmakers or members of the public having a firm grasp of what they entail.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, a Grove City Republican, said the pace at the Capitol was like “hell bent for leather.” And he said he noticed a change in tone in the Legislature in the first few weeks of this year as lawmakers on both sides overvalued the views of their caucus over what he called the other two important “Cs”: conscience and constituents.
“Those are the things that we balance, and I guess sometimes the components vary in their impact and their importance to us,” Urdahl said. “Well, it has been evolving more and more toward caucus over the years. We still have our consciences and our constituents. We certainly do, and a lot of members pay close attention to that. But the role of the caucus has become more prevalent over the years.”
MPR News correspondent Brian Bakst contributed to this report.