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5 Greater Minnesota storylines to watch at the Legislature in 2023

From Greater Minnesota’s diminished clout in a DFL-controlled Legislature to how leaders handle agriculture issues, it’ll be an interesting year.

The floor of the Minnesota Senate
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

When the Legislature convenes at the start of January under full DFL control for the first time since 2014, lawmakers will also have a ginormous $17.6 billion surplus — that’s the technical term for it — as they set a two-year state budget and consider a range of policies.

Much of that will be legislation that previously stalled when Republicans held a majority in the state Senate. The DFL will now have a one-seat advantage in the Senate.

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What will the next year bring for Greater Minnesota? Here are a few storylines to watch:

  1. Greater Minnesota’s diminished clout in the Legislature and how it impacts what passes

There are many ways to illustrate the swing in power at the Legislature from Greater Minnesota to the Twin Cities metro after the November election.

But here’s one: In 2022, lawmakers from Greater Minnesota chaired 22 of 28 committees in the Republican-controlled state Senate. But after the more metro-heavy DFL flipped the chamber, Greater Minnesota lawmakers will chair just three of 20 committees.

Even in the state House, where the DFL retained its majority, the number of committees led by Greater Minnesota legislators will drop from eight to four. That’s in part because a handful of remaining DFLers from outside the metro were defeated by Republicans.

The end result is considerably less formal clout for Greater Minnesota in the political process. That doesn’t mean Republicans and DFLers from outside the metro can’t influence legislation at the Capitol.

But they will not have as much power. That could mean a very different set of spending and policy decisions from lawmakers.

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  1. Whether Greater Minnesota Democrats will crash big DFL ambitions

There may be fewer Greater Minnesota lawmakers in positions of power at the Capitol. But there are still enough DFLers to make an outsized impact on major issues since the party has slim majorities in the House and Senate.

For instance, the DFL has only a one-vote margin in the Senate, and some newly elected lawmakers like incoming Sens. Rob Kupec of Moorhead or Grant Hauschild of Hermantown might determine the limits of the DFL agenda.

How a handful of DFLers from more conservative and rural districts land on hot-button issues like climate change regulations, gun restrictions and tax and spending issues could be a major theme of the legislative session.

And they could also assert themselves on issues like eliminating the state tax on Social Security benefits. At least four of six DFLers from Greater Minnesota in the state Senate publicly support repealing that tax, which many top Democrats oppose.

Inflation and the rising cost of living was a top concern across Greater Minnesota this year.

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  1. Prospects for a public construction bill and how many Greater Minnesota projects make the cut

Republican and DFL lawmakers said they wanted to approve a package of publicly financed construction projects in the 2022 session. And they even had a rough outline of what that bonding bill might look like.

Yet the bill was tanked — like most of the Legislature’s work — by larger disagreements over how to spend Minnesota’s budget surplus. Lawmakers in 2020 passed a historically large bonding bill. But they did not pass one in either 2021 or 2022, marking the first time since at least 1983 that the Legislature failed to pass a bonding bill in a two-year budget cycle.

The lack of a bonding bill drew condemnation from local government officials across much of Greater Minnesota, where money to subsidize projects like wastewater plant upgrades helps offset local property taxes. And it also rankled union leaders who push for bonding projects because they create construction jobs.

Will this year bring a bonding bill? While the DFL may have full control, general obligation bonds need a 60 percent supermajority to pass, giving Republicans leverage on the issue that they might use to negotiate on other topics. In theory, it’s one issue where bipartisan agreement will remain critical to sending a bill to the desk of Gov. Tim Walz.

Still, House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she might skip traditional bonds and opt for cash, which needs only a simple majority to use, cutting the GOP out of negotiations.

  1. How a DFL majority handles ag issues, especially with so few members with farm experience

Agriculture regulation was a source of fierce debate and disagreement under former Gov. Mark Dayton, who worked to put buffer rules and other limits on farmers meant to reduce water pollution that sparked backlash from the industry.

There have been some clashes over ag regulations under Walz and the divided Legislature, such as when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency set tougher fertilizer rules for feedlots meant to stem water pollution. But it has not been as much of a point of contention

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The “omnibus” agriculture bill, which wraps up policy and spending on the issue, is usually one of the most bipartisan and easier areas for lawmakers to find agreement on. Walz’s agriculture commissioner Thom Petersen is perhaps the most-liked cabinet member among Republican legislators.

Will that change under a DFL-controlled Legislature? The incoming chairman of the Senate’s agriculture committee will be Sen. Aric Putnam, a liberal arts college professor from St. Cloud. And the chairwoman of the House’s ag committee will be Rep. Samantha Vang of Brooklyn Center, a tenant advocate who was vice chair of the committee in 2022.

  1. How climate and energy policy changes would play out in Greater Minnesota

DFL leaders hope to spend big on policies meant to address climate change with Republicans left largely powerless to stop the legislation.

That could mean electric vehicle infrastructure in many parts of Greater Minnesota that lack it, new spending on ‘weatherization’ work to reduce energy use — and power bills — in a way that has traditionally helped people outside of the metro area disproportionately.

But the Legislature is also set to wrangle with more controversial regulations on the electric and transportation sectors that have concerned some utilities, like Duluth-based Minnesota Power, which provides energy for large industries like mining.

Another proposed regulation to make transportation fuel emit less over time has been supported by biofuels producers in the past, but it has also drawn concern from some that DFLers plan to phase out the industry altogether in favor of EVs.

Republicans worry some of the legislation could drive up the already expensive cost of power in Greater Minnesota or limit the availability of gas-powered vehicles in areas where EVs are less practical at the moment. But Democrats say combating climate change is important because it impacts much of Greater Minnesota, including by producing more extreme weather that hurts farmers or warmer winters that hurts cold-weather recreation and tourism.