Capitol roundup: House passes legal marijuana, DFL tax plan draws flack

The Minnesota Capitol just after sunset
The Minnesota Capitol building just after sunset on a spring evening.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

The Minnesota House on Thursday voted 73-57 to legalize cannabis for recreational use for those 21 and older.

Under the plan, people would be allowed to possess, grow and use cannabis. The state would license marijuana growers and regulate and tax their products. The bill would also expunge the criminal records of those convicted of non-violent marijuana crimes. 

The House votes tees up the bill for a Senate vote, then the governor’s signature. Senators were expected to take up the bill for debate on Friday.

“The day has finally arrived. Today is the day that we are going to vote here in the House for the last time to legalize cannabis and bring the change that many Minnesotans have wanted for a very long time,” the bill’s author Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, said.

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Opponents on the floor said legalizing cannabis could create safety concerns and Minnesotans could become hooked.

Recreational marijuana bill on edge of becoming Minnesota law

“There will be life and death consequences for this,” Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River. “You can't tell me in your heart of hearts, that you think that we're not going to have less crashes. It's going to be acceptable. It's going to be more in the schools. You know that people are going to buy their container of marijuana once they've got their state-approved seal.”

Paid Family and Medical Leave headed to Walz 

The Minnesota Senate by a 34-32 vote passed the final version of a bill that creates a state paid family and medical leave program. The House of Representatives approved the bill on Wednesday and it now goes to the governor for his signature. 

Under the plan, workers and employers would pay a 0.7 percent payroll tax that would fund a state program that works like unemployment insurance. Workers could get partial payment if they need to take time off because they have a baby, get sick or need to care for a loved one.

Benefits and payments would start in 2026. Workers could take a maximum of 20 weeks of leave in a year.

The bill’s author Sen. Alice Mann, DFL-Edina, said Thursday that she had emergency surgery to remove an inflamed gallbladder. Sen. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, said Mann and several other senators who’d taken time away from the Senate to recover from illness or injury or to care for loved ones, exemplified why the program is needed.

"Minnesotans should be able to work and care for themselves and their families,” she said. “This program is built on a foundation that all people are worthy, that all of our life experiences and life trajectories are equally important."

Workers and employers will pay a payroll tax to fund the system that works like unemployment insurance. Then if a worker gets sick, has a baby or needs to care for a loved one, they can take time off with partial pay replacement. Republicans and business groups said the plan is too complicated and expensive for employers. 

"The state Legislature has decided for Minnesotans, you don't know enough about what you need, we're going to take care of you,” Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said. “We ought to send this back. This is too important. This is a $1.5 billion tax on Minnesotans. This is a $1.5 billion tax on Minnesota workers."

Tax bill angst

A $3 billion tax plan published late Wednesday drew praise as well as blowback on Thursday.

The proposal would send out $260 rebates to those who make $75,000 a year or less, create new child tax credits and increase the number of Minnesotans exempt from paying income tax on their Social Security benefits.

It would also increase taxes for people who make money from certain investments, like taxes, and on businesses’ global earnings.

Republicans blasted the plan and said that Democrats should send more rebates and credits back to taxpayers. Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, deemed it a “runaway tax season” at the Capitol.

“Remember earlier this session, we had a $19 billion surplus, Minnesotans were expecting that to go back into their pockets. Minnesotans were expecting that to go into their infrastructure. Minnesotans were expecting that to support the nursing homes that are struggling across the state,” Johnson said. “But we're not seeing that, we're seeing that being spent on government.” 

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said the DFL should not be proud of what it was moving forward.

“Over and over and over in this chamber, we have heard the majority party say how proud they are to seize the moment of their one-party rule,” Demuth said. “Well, that pride actually results in raising taxes. That pride results in ramming through bad policies.”

 Democrats said the package would benefit millions of Minnesotans and paired with enhanced state spending for various areas of government, they would see the difference, Hortman said.

“I don't think people are surprised that Democrats want to invest in education and health care and taking care of people,” she said. “And in terms of money going back to people, there is a lot of money going back to people in all sorts of different ways. Child care providers will get a raise. Those who take care of people with disabilities will get a raise so Minnesotans are receiving back the surplus.”

Gov. Tim Walz initially proposed rebate checks nearly four times as large as those included in the deal. But he said the combination of rebates, credits and other relief for Minnesota families was a strong package.

“You know, I argued for a little bit more,” Walz said. “I think, in the compromise at the end, it's good.”

Early finish unlikely

Hopes of an early finish to the Legislature’s budget-setting session are out the window with a fair amount of work that will take lawmakers through the weekend.

DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic said Thursday that’s due to the mechanics of assembling final legislation and length of debates. They expected the session to run up to Monday’s adjournment deadline.

Dziedzic said she’s confident they’ll process remaining bills by then even if Republicans extend debate.

“We're moving forward. We would hope the other party would join us to pass these bills in a timely fashion that helped Minnesotans,” Dziedzic said. “So some of this is, do they want to continue gridlock or do they want to help us and help Minnesotans?”

The leaders said they’re working toward final deals around transportation, taxes and health. But they said the sports betting legalization push will slide into the 2024 session.

Republicans at the Capitol pushed back on the allegation that they were holding up the session’s finale and said Democrats — not Republicans — still hadn’t wrapped up budget bills.

DFL Legislative leaders say lawmakers working on a transportation funding plan at the Minnesota Capitol are likely to include a new fee on deliveries and a higher gas tax.

Lawmakers have said the current gas tax isn't providing enough revenue for long term road and bridge needs, and they have been looking for years to find new sources of funding. 

This year the House passed a 75-cent fee on package and prepared food deliveries, but the Senate did not. DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic told reporters that negotiators are close on a final plan, but Dziedzic used a different name for the fee.

 "First of all I would call it a road maintenance fee. So we'll just clarify that. It is to help improve road maintenance."

The leaders would not give full details of the funding plan. Neither the House nor the Senate had a gas tax increase in the original funding bill they passed this year.

Keeping nurses at the Bedside pulled out of health bill 

Minnesota lawmakers say they’ve reached a deal on a contentious bill that gives hospital nurses a bigger role in staffing plans. 

After drawing threats and blowback over the measure, lawmakers decided to pull the Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act from a broader health omnibus bill to a conference committee. 

The measure would create committees inside hospitals, made up of nurses and other staff to determine staffing plans and workload requirements. It also contains other provisions, like oversight of the staffing plans by the state health department. The bill is being championed by the Minnesota Nurses Association, which says this is key to keeping nurses from leaving the profession. 

Bill authors said they’d spent days meeting with dozens of stakeholders and felt they’d reached a compromise that could satisfy most of them.

“It gives nurses a powerful voice, to take care of patients in our hospitals across the state to do so safely, but to bring their professional judgment and the work that they know best to their care both in the patient's room, and in the execution of plans in the hospitals across the state,” Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-Saint Paul, said.

The measure offers an exemption for the Mayo Clinic and drew frustration from nurses who testified in committee. It could come up for a conference committee vote soon and would then need to be approved in both chambers before advancing to the governor’s desk.