Five of the biggest Minnesota news moments we’ll remember from 2023

Janice Illingworth smokes the end of a giant novelty joint
Janice Illingworth smokes the end of a giant novelty joint during a celebration at First Avenue marking the legalization of recreational cannabis on Aug. 1.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Updated: 3:45 p.m.

What had Minnesotans talking in 2023, you ask? Well, we had a memorable year in politics, weather and celebrity appearances (aka Taylor Swift).

Perhaps the biggest news event of 2023 wrapped up this month with finalizing the grand design of the new Minnesota state flag. It had some haters, some lovers and some who didn’t really care but still weighed in on the discourse.

Here’s more on the biggest topics of the year.

We were obsessed with selecting Minnesota’s new state flag 

The redesign of the state flag and seal was the hottest news of 2023 in Minnesota. Over 2,100 design submissions were revealed to the public in November and from there, Minnesotans talked nonstop about what they wanted to see in their new state flag.

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The flag redesign was fueled by criticism of Minnesota’s current flag, which depicts a Native American riding into the distance as a white farmer tills a field.

Loons, stars and fish were popular elements in design submissions. Some sent in cheeky ones, like a photo of a dog and lettering that read “BAYG.” Thousands of flag enthusiasts were quick to weigh in during a comment period on which designs they liked the best.

The State Emblems Redesign Commission picked the final design last week. The official design of the flag includes an eight-point North Star and a single, light blue block on the other side.

The new state flag design
The State Emblems Redesign Commission decided on a new Minnesota state flag design in an 11-1 vote on Dec. 19.
Courtesy of the State Emblems Redesign Commission

It will make its debut on Statehood Day on May 11, unless the Legislature rejects the final flag design.

Flag expert Ted Kaye of the North American Vexillological Association (vexillology is the study of flags) considers the final design to be in the top 10 in the country.

“It’s an outstanding design, and Minnesotans will come to love it,” said Kaye.

Minnesota legalized recreational cannabis

The DFL-controlled state House, Senate and governor’s office finally legalized recreational marijuana during this year’s legislative session. That made Minnesota the 23rd state to legalize recreational cannabis.

Supporters of legal marijuana celebrated on Aug. 1., when Minnesotans 21 and older were officially allowed to use cannabis recreationally and grow their own plants at home.

The new law also offers forgiveness for people with criminal records related to marijuana: records of low-level offenses will be automatically sealed, while people with felonies will find an easier pathway for review of records and potential expungement by a newly created board.  

Person buys legal marijuana
Charles Goodwin (right), a dispensary employee, makes the first purchase at the NativeCare dispensary on the Red Lake Nation after it opened to customers on Aug. 1.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

Only a few marijuana dispensaries are open on tribal reservations (i.e., White Earth Nation and Red Lake Nation), but it likely won’t be until at least late next year or even 2025 that more dispensaries will start opening across the state.

There are two jobs open for marijuana regulators at the state level, one overseeing medical cannabis and the other for management of Minnesota’s new marijuana market.

Gov. Tim Walz initially appointed Erin Dupree in September, who resigned a day after her appointment following investigations by The Star Tribune and MPR News into her CBD business. It found her shop had sold products exceeding legal THC limits and had a record of unpaid taxes.

Chris Tholkes, who’s led the state Office of Medical Cannabis for nearly five years, stepped down this month. The search to fill in these two vacancies will likely go into 2024, but Walz has not shared a timeline for when they will be filled.

Taylor Swift graced us, then ghosted us

Swifties from all over the Midwest flocked to U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for pop star Taylor Swift’s Eras tour in June. It attracted about 120,000 to downtown Minneapolis, prompting Mayor Jacob Frey to temporarily rename the city “Swiftieapolis.”

Security ramped up in preparation for Swift’s concert, which also happened at the same time as the Twin Cities Pride Festival. It resulted in road closures in the area and an extension of Metro Transit’s late-night service hours for fans leaving the shows. Hundreds of fans waited in line for hours to get merch before her show.

Swifties were hoping to get another chance to see the Grammy-winning songstress again after she appeared at two Kansas City Chiefs games to support her rumored new beau, tight end Travis Kelce. The day came on Oct. 8, when the Minnesota Vikings squared off against the Chiefs. 

But Swift did not make an appearance, and Minnesotan Swifties were heartbroken.

We saw record-setting weather

Minnesota saw some extreme weather conditions this year, from heavy snowfall to record heat. 

We started off the year with a snowstorm that brought 15 inches to the Twin Cities area and had snow on the ground into the month of March. A blizzard hit central and southern Minnesota at the top of April, knocking out power for tens of thousands of businesses and homes. 

In total, the Twin Cities recorded about 90 inches of snow in the 2022-23 winter season — the third most ever recorded behind 98.6 inches in the winter of 1983-84 and 95 inches in 1981-82. Duluth also set a record for most snowfall ever recorded, with 140.1 inches total.

Snow covered road lined by cars
Residents in West St. Paul dig out cars and sidewalks as they wait for a plow to clear the street on April 1.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

We then transitioned into a warm spring and a flash drought in the summer, with high temperatures well into the 90s.

September was the hottest on record but then heavy rain ended the drought in most of the state. The areas of the western and northern Twin Cities saw two months worth of rainfall while eastern and northwestern Minnesota got 4 to 6 inches in just a few days.

That has led into warmer temperatures and no early signs of significant snow yet during this winter season going into 2024, which is in stark contrast to last year.

‘Walz checks’ sent out to about 2.1 million households

This year, the Minnesota Legislature decided to set aside some of the state’s estimated $17.5 billion budget surplus to give back to Minnesotans as tax relief. Just under $1 billion was sent out in the form of “Walz checks,” or one-time tax rebate checks, to about 2.1 million Minnesotan households in the fall.

A man gestures with his hand as he speaks at a podium
Gov. Tim Walz announces details of the rebate program providing up to $1,300 for Minnesota families during a press conference at the State Capitol in St. Paul on Aug. 16.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Many people mistook the rebates as scammy checks and tossed them because the return address was listed in Montana. The state contracted with Submittable Holdings Of Missoula, Mont., to get the checks sent out and reissued replacement checks to those who didn’t cash them in or threw them away.

It was less than Walz originally wanted to pay back Minnesotans. His budget proposal in January hoped to give out $1,000 per person, up to $2,000 to married couples and up to $2,600 for families. But the checks went down to $260 per person subject to income caps and maxed out at $1,300 for a family of five.

Also, the IRS ended up taking a cut of $100 million or more in the rebates, according to MPR News reporting this month. That means a $26 to $286 handover, depending on the size of a household’s initial payout.

The last batch of checks went out earlier this month.

Correction (Dec. 27, 2023): An earlier version of this story included an outdated figure for the number of rebate checks sent out this year.