After bountiful 2023 session, Minnesota legislative leaders say agenda is leaner this year

A telephoto view of the golden statue on the Capitol
The golden "Progress of the State" statue sits atop the south entrance of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

After the 2023 legislative session delivered a smorgasbord of policy and spending wins for Minnesota Democrats and their allies, legislative leaders are urging rank-and-file members and groups with new requests to keep appetites in check.

When the DFL gained full Capitol control last year, it set them up to pass dozens of long-sought changes, from abortion protections to recreational cannabis. And they boosted spending across state government, from universal school meals to modest tax rebates.

Lawmakers return for their election-year session Monday. Leaders of the Democratic majorities have served warning: They’ll move from feast-mode to a bit of a bill-passing diet.

“So if you think about budget year 2023, it is like a snake eating a hedgehog,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “For a while, this snake is not going to be eating anything else — not like a mouse or anything — because it has to digest the hedgehog.”

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She continued, saying “we really have to see across a broad range of government programs, how the investments that we made, will impact people's lives, and then find out what the gaps are.”

A man and woman talk to cameras and microphones
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and House Majority Leader Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, talk to reporters just after they ended the session for the year on May 22, 2023.
Matthew Alvarez | MPR News 2023

Early on, lawmakers are set to receive updates on how that proverbial hedgehog is going down. They’ll hear how new funding is flowing into state agencies and making its way out to schools, health initiatives and more.

As that “digestion” continues, DFL leaders advised advocacy groups to check their expectations for more.

“There are limits to what the state government can do in terms of improving the affordability of people’s lives. And there’s definitely more work to do,” Hortman said. “But we’ll probably be teeing up action for 2025 more than we’ll be acting in 2024.”

Gov. Tim Walz echoed Hortman and said the focus should be on rolling out what already passed more than adding new spending.

“I think we’ve got work to continue to implement,” he said. “Our system is set up where a budget bill is in the odd-numbered years and these type of policy proposals and a bonding bill is done this year.”

Resource strain

A recent budget projection showed Minnesota has a surplus in the current two-year spending cycle. But that stands to get completely wiped out or worse in the two years that follow.

Leaders of both parties have called for restraint. Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said lawmakers should reevaluate prior spending decisions and add precautions to catch misuse of state funds.

“We better start acting really soon before we end up going off some fiscal cliff here and really impacting our communities and families and businesses across the state,” Johnson said.

That mood will also hang over discussion of a borrowing plan for public construction projects. 

A person speaks at a podium
House Minority leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring speaks during the first day of the 2023 legislative session on Jan. 3, 2023, in St. Paul.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News 2023

During non-budget years, the bill letting the state issue debt for projects takes center stage. It exposes unique power dynamics because it requires a higher threshold to pass — and that means Republican buy-in.

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said it offers the GOP rare leverage.

“If there is going to be a bonding bill, we’ve got to get our spending under control,” Demuth said. “We are facing a structural deficit in two years — not just an imbalance, but a deficit.”

Quick fixes

Lawmakers plan to immediately take up quick fixes for policies that spurred confusion or didn’t land right. 

Democrats said they’ll act quickly to clear up how school resource officers can react in situations where damage or harm could be imminent. Some police departments pulled officers from schools after a law limiting prone holds on students sparked worry over liability. The first committee hearing on that is set to meet Monday afternoon.

“The bill that we will pass will clarify that school resource officers are law enforcement officers, and that the work that they do in school is not as like a teacher — making sure somebody turns in their homework — but as a law enforcement officer,” Hortman said.

Hortman said her caucus is in alignment on the plan but several groups have opposed it and said the existing law should remain.

The marijuana legalization law will also get a fresh look — to speed up eventual commercial growing and retail sales, as well as to reframe rules for hospitality workers serving alcoholic beverages and cannabis products.

Senate leader change

In the Senate, Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, assumed a new role last week as the majority leader. Senator Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, stepped aside just over a week ago amid a cancer diagnosis.

Murphy told MPR News that the caucus was still shaken by the news of Dziedzic’s ovarian cancer recurrence. Murphy said she would try to mirror her predecessor’s ability to keep the razor-thin majority united.

“I’m going to do my very best to show up in those same shoes,” she said, calling Dziedzic an exemplary leader. “We are stronger when we act together, and we stick together. And I hope that I, among 34 of us, emulate that and build on that success.”

Minnesota senate leadership holds a presser
DFL Sen. Erin Murphy speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol on Nov. 9, 2022 in St. Paul.
Ben Hovland | MPR News 2022

Political messaging will be on full blast because once the session gavels out — likely in mid-May — campaign season takes over. All 134 House seats and chamber control are on November’s ballot.

GOP leaders said they planned to highlight for voters places where Democrats went too far — like in redesigning state emblems, spending much of the state’s budget surplus and approving renovations and expansion of the State Office Building.

“As Minnesotans realize that one-party control can actually make that happen, and make decisions that make it more expensive for their lives, they're going to be paying attention to that,” Demuth, the House minority leader, said. “It’s out of touch.”

Hortman countered that most Minnesota voters favored the changes made last year, but the GOP can’t say the same for its proposals.

“I think Republicans are just very out of step,” she said. “And when they try to change the topic, to the things that are on voters’ minds, I don’t think they’re being very successful.”

Both chambers gavel in at noon.