Politics and Government

The 10 biggest changes to hit Minnesota this year, from legal cannabis to abortion access

School children embrace a politician
Students celebrate with Gov. Tim Walz after signing the free school meals bill at Webster Elementary in northeast Minneapolis on March 17.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

After winning narrow majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and securing control of the governor’s office, DFLers in January came to the Capitol with a long wish list

In the five months that followed, they adopted dozens of sweeping changes that affected Minnesotans’ lives in ways big and small. 

They legalized marijuana for recreational use, put in place legal protections for abortion, restored voting rights to people convicted of a felony who’d served out their prison terms and funded school meals for any student that wanted them.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest policy changes that took effect this year and a look ahead at how some will impact Minnesotans in 2024.

1) Legalized cannabis

The Legislature approved a proposal to legalize cannabis for adults 21 and older. The law allows people to possess, use and grow cannabis, and it grants the expungement of some drug-related crimes from criminal records.

Minnesota became the 23rd state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. In August, it became legal for adults to grow and possess small amounts of marijuana without penalties. Fewer than half of the other states allow people to grow their own within limits.

It will be another year or so before cannabis dispensaries can set up shop around the state. A couple opened soon after the Aug. 1 authorization date because Indigenous Tribes in Minnesota are sovereign and some authorized dispensaries to open early. 

The Office of Cannabis Management is still working on rules that will govern those businesses. Gov. Tim Walz has said he will soon appoint someone to lead the office. The inaugural director stepped down after one day on the job.

A man takes a hit from a bong with smoke around him
Anthony Jordan takes a hit outside of First Avenue before a celebration marking the legalization of recreational marijuana on Aug. 1.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

2) Free school lunches

Minnesota became the fourth state in the country to provide free breakfasts and lunches to students at participating schools after Walz signed the measure into law in March.

Many — but not all — students in Minnesota qualified for free and reduced-price meals ahead of the change. That program was based on household income, and if families were below a certain threshold their students could receive school meals for free or for a reduced price. Families no longer have to prove their income.

Providing the meals at no cost to all students was expected to cost the state almost $400 million in the first two years, and that price tag would grow in the future. The new funding covers the cost of meals, but not of second helpings or of separate a la carte items. 

State budget officials said this month that the cost for offering universal meals exceeded expectations because more students took advantage of the program than they expected.

Children sit at a lunch table.
Kindergarten students were seated in every other chair during snack time at South Elementary in St. Peter as students returned to the school for in-person learning.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

3) Reproductive, gender-affirming care rights

Amid enactment of abortion and gender-affirming care restrictions in conservative-led states, Minnesota lawmakers went the other direction and approved policies that guaranteed the right to reproductive and gender-affirming care services in the state.

Lawmakers also rolled back restrictions on abortion and set in place legal protections for people traveling to Minnesota for abortions or for gender-affirming care, as well as for those who provide it.

DFL legislative leaders have said they’ll consider putting a constitutional amendment before voters next year that cements the right to reproductive health care including abortion.

A person holds a Pro Act bill
Gov. Tim Walz speaks after signing the PRO Act, or House File 1, during a ceremony on Jan. 31 at the Minnesota Department of Revenue.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

4) New state flag

After raising concerns that Minnesota’s current flag is too cluttered and insensitive to some groups because of its depiction of a Native American man riding toward the horizon, the Legislature set up a process for a new flag to be commissioned.

Over the last four months, the State Emblems Redesign Commission fielded thousands of submissions for a new state flag and seal. It whittled down those options before landing on a state flag that uses a dark blue K-shaped figure to represent Minnesota with a white North Star inside and a light blue bar to the right, representing water.

The commission also adopted a new state seal that centers a loon preening on a lake surrounded by trees, wild rice and a North Star. The seal also includes the Dakota phrase Mni Sóta Makoce, which inspired the present-day name for Minnesota.

The new emblems are set to take effect in May unless the Legislature votes to override them.

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

5) Tax rebates (and some hikes)

After months of debate, lawmakers agreed to send tax rebates to Minnesotans who made up to $75,000 a year in 2021 (or $150,000 as a married couple). The state sent out just under $1 billion to more than 2 million Minnesotans.

Checks spanned from $260 for an individual to $1,300 for a family of five. The state announced in December that the IRS plans to tax the checks, despite pushback from Minnesota leaders. State tax forms for the checks went out this month.

In other tax changes, parents and those with dependents were made eligible for additional credits when they file their 2023 taxes. Couples who make $35,000 or less will see a $1,750 credit for each of their children. Those who make more than that could still see a tax credit, but it would likely be smaller. The credits phase out for those with higher incomes.

DFL lawmakers said about 265,000 families will be eligible for the credits and they’re estimated to cut child poverty in the state by one-third.

Some folks will see tax hikes and additional fees under other measures approved by the Legislature. Lawmakers approved a global intangible low-taxed income (or GILTI) tax that will pull in more money from businesses with global earnings.

People who make money on investment earnings such as stocks will also see a tax hike. Overall, the proposed tax increases are expected to net the state about $2 billion over four years.

Starting in July, Minnesotans will also see a 50-cent fee on deliveries that cost more than $100, with some exceptions. Higher motor vehicle sales and registration taxes, and a gradual gas tax increase tied to inflation took hold earlier this year.

A man speaks at a podium during a press conference
Minnesota Department of Revenue Commissioner Paul Marquart answers questions about the rebate program during a press conference at the State Capitol in St. Paul on Aug. 16.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

6) Clean energy push

Early in the last session, DFL legislators approved and the governor signed into law a plan to require the state’s utilities to use only carbon-free sources to generate electricity by 2040.

In later provisions, lawmakers approved significant investments that supporters said could help Minnesota fight climate change and move more aggressively toward a carbon-free economy.

As part of a $2 billion environment and climate package, legislators adopted the country’s toughest restrictions on PFAS and created new requirements to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease.

The massive budget bill also invests hundreds of millions of dollars in dozens of initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions, from funding for solar panels on schools to electric vehicle rebates. The plan includes substantial new funding toward natural resources — from planting trees and restoring wetlands to building new boat ramps and fish hatcheries.

People stand around a man who is signing a document
On Feb. 7, Gov. Tim Walz signed into law a plan that would require electric utilities to transition to 100 percent carbon-free power sources by 2040.
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

7) Gun restrictions

After years of failed attempts to pass gun control policies at the Capitol, Democrats approved two bills that will make Minnesota the latest state to enact what are known as “red flag” and Extreme Risk Protection Orders designed to remove firearms from those believed to be at risk of suicide or harming others.

Beginning on Jan. 1, Minnesotans will be able to petition a court to authorize the removal of someone’s firearms.

Lawmakers also expanded criminal background checks to private transfers of firearms.

Bill supporters said the measures will prevent some gun-related homicides and suicides. Gun rights groups and Republicans said the bills will create an undue burden on lawful gun owners and won’t address root causes of gun violence.

A gathering outside of the state capitol building.
Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a Moms Demand Action rally outside the Minnesota State Capitol on April 25.
Matt Alvarez | MPR News

8) Felon voting rights

Beginning in June, Minnesotans convicted of a felony who had served all necessary time behind bars had their right to vote restored. Under prior law, they had to serve out supervised release or probation before they could vote.

The law change in Minnesota is projected to affect more than 55,000 people. It has been challenged in court. The conservative Minnesota Voters Alliance has argued that the law is unconstitutional and that the Legislature erred in passing it.

An Anoka County judge this month ruled that the group doesn’t have standing to sue. The group has appealed and is asking to have the Minnesota Supreme Court take up the case.

A man receives his ballot
Zeke Caligiuri receives his ballot at the Powderhorn Recreation Center in Minneapolis on Nov. 7.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

9) Free college tuition for some

Students whose families make less than $80,000 a year became eligible for free tuition at Minnesota’s public colleges and universities starting next school year under the North Star Promise Scholarship Program.

The program doesn’t have an age restriction, but recipients can’t have completed a bachelor’s degree program. The scholarships will cover tuition and fees after other scholarships, grants, stipends and tuition waivers have been applied. 

The move spurred competition for students that might consider traveling out of state for college. North Dakota State University recently announced it will also offer free undergraduate tuition for up to two years for Minnesotans whose families make less than $80,000 per year.  

Students walk across a bridge
Students cross the Washington Avenue bridge on the University of Minnesota campus between classes on Sept. 22.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

10) Driver’s licenses for all

Beginning in October, Minnesota began accepting applications for drivers licenses, regardless of an applicant’s immigration status. About 81,000 people were estimated to become eligible for licenses, permits and state identification cards under the change.

Business, public safety and immigrant advocacy organizations said that granting people in the country without proper authorization the option to apply for state identification cards would improve safety on Minnesota’s roadways. Opponents argued that it could create an incentive for migrants to come to Minnesota illegally.

A big red sign says drivers licenses for all
Supporters of allowing undocumented immigrants to receive drivers license rally at the Minnesota State Capitol on Feb. 21.
Tim Evans for MPR News