Minnesota lawmakers opened the 2024 legislative session Monday by resuming debate over what happened in 2023, briefly skirmishing over rules for school safety officers and disagreeing over the impact of a budget ratified last spring.
In an election-year session, the messaging battles will be constantly at the fore. There isn’t as much money on the table and most of the big decisions were made last year, so the to-do list is inherently smaller.
Legislative leaders have said they’ll focus on a public construction bill and policy tweaks. The first of those — updating state tax law and confusion around a law barring chokeholds on students — came for committee consideration on Monday.
But for some, that wasn’t soon enough. Republicans in the House aimed to paint the action by DFLers as too little too late.
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“We know that this specific issue on fixing the school resource officer issue that was passed last session … is top of mind for Minnesotans. This specific issue cannot wait any longer,” House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said as she sought to declare an emergency and take up a bill immediately. “We don’t need further hearings. We need to act.”
Last year, lawmakers approved a law barring school workers and resource officers from restraining students in a way that can limit their breathing or ability to call out for help. Police departments around the state pulled school resource officers as a result, saying they had concerns about liability for officers.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the bill is due for committee votes this week and would come before the full chamber as soon as next week. She said that should be a sign that it’s a priority for Democrats.
“We are moving quickly. And we are moving thoughtfully,” she told reporters.
Another issue set to get quick consideration is an update to state tax law after a wording glitch in a 2023 bill that could pose future problems for married filers over their standard deduction allowance. A proposed technical correction aimed at helping filers is also on a fast track in the House.
Construction projects bill
Other policy and spending discussions will take more time. The biggest priority for the Legislature in this non-budget year will be drafting a public construction bill.
The measure is known as the bonding bill since it allows the state to issue bonds to pay for projects around the state. And because it allows the state to take on debt, it carries a higher threshold to pass.
And that means that Republicans in the Legislature have special leverage.
Republicans said they’ll be concentrated on the state’s bottom line, arguing the state spent too much last year and needs to proceed more cautiously in 2024.
“If we’re willing to get a better deal for Minnesota, we’re very much willing to hold our votes until we can get that,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks.
GOP leaders have highlighted areas in the new budget they see as excessive and out of line. One is a set of raises for state agency commissioners, some of whom saw salary bumps of $30,000 or more.
Lawmakers adopted the raises at the recommendation of a special council that weighed whether pay for the management posts is competitive.
Walz defended the bumps on Monday.
“I’m not going to make any apologies for hiring and being able to be competitive with the best people who run agencies, multibillion dollar agencies, with thousands of employees,” Walz said.
“You can’t have it both ways,” he continued. “You can’t criticize us for not hiring good commissioners and or being able to attract good people and then say you don’t want to pay them. So that’s a hill I’m gonna die on. You need to pay people fairly.”
As far as the broader state budget goes, Walz and lawmakers will await a comprehensive economic forecast before making any big spending decisions this year. That is due before the end of February.
On the session’s opening day, the Department of Minnesota Management and Budget released revenue figures for January. Their calculations showed collections running $313 million — or 11 percent — of projections for the month. All of the major tax categories were up, and almost half was from the individual income tax.
Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy said Democrats would work to keep in place new programs they enacted last year — like universal school meals — and expand them or tweak them to address concerns.
“We passed a powerful agenda last year, we did but that doesn’t mean we’ve run out of good ideas,” said Murphy, DFL-St. Paul. “That doesn’t mean that Minnesotans aren’t still contending with the cost of child care, the lack of access to health care, the rent is sometimes too high, food insecurity, etc.”
Equal Rights Amendment
Supporters of an Equal Rights Amendment dressed in green and packed the rotunda ahead of the Legislature kickoff, waving signs that read, “Yes ERA.”
Activists and DFL lawmakers voiced their support and called on the Legislature to pass a bill to get the proposed constitutional amendment before voters. During the rally, DFLers vowed to make the bill a priority this year.
Should the bill get through the House and Senate, a question would be placed on the statewide ballot — likely in 2026 — that asks voters if they want to amend the state Constitution to guarantee equal rights.
Last month, backers of the bill modified the proposed amendment to explicitly spell out rights to pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes. Opponents have argued the bill could come with unintended consequences and they said they would marshal opposition at the ballot box.
State Rep. Kaohly Her, the House’s chief author of the ERA bill, has set a goal of getting the bill heard and passed off the House floor before the end of February.
“Our bill is going to be the most inclusive in the country,” Her, DFL-St. Paul, said. “What I want to do is look forward to what we have coming, and that we have commitment from our leaders to say we are going to pass it this year, that we are going to pass it early in session.”
Last session, the Minnesota Senate passed a version of the bill but the House did not take it up for a vote.
Display of bi‘bar’tisanship
As lawmakers streamed back to the House and Senate chambers, Walz continued his annual tradition of handing out dessert bars to lawmakers to promote bipartisanship as a “gesture of friendship.”
He briskly walked the hallway between the chambers, quickly greeting various lobbyists and activists as he passed them.
The governor wielded a spatula and a pan of this year’s featured batch — “apple blondie” bars made by his staff. Walz enthusiastically scooped the treats onto cocktail napkins for any member of the Minnesota House of Representatives who wanted one before they gaveled in.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, accepted a bar as Walz chatted briefly with him about the odds of a federal farm bill passing before March. Demuth, the House minority leader, passed on a bar telling him they looked “lovely,” but she has an allergy.
Speaking to reporters after handing out the snacks, Walz said he hoped building bridges early would help later. He said he was in the shoes of Republicans as a member of Congress.
“It’s terrible to be in the minority,” Walz said. “It’s especially terrible if you feel like you’re not being heard at all and I think what we’re trying to do is make sure there’s room here. A bonding bill has to be bipartisan.”