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Protecting abortion and legalizing cannabis: Speaker Hortman on Minnesota House priorities in the 2023 DFL trifecta

With the legislative session convening Jan. 3 and the DFL about to be in control of the House, Senate and governor’s office, MinnPost talked with House Speaker Melissa Hortman to talk about her caucus’ priorities.

Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman: “I believe that we will pass adult-use cannabis in the Minnesota House. … I don’t know about the Minnesota Senate.”
Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman: “I believe that we will pass adult-use cannabis in the Minnesota House. … I don’t know about the Minnesota Senate.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman is expected to be elected to her third term as the leader of that chamber when the 2023 session convenes Jan. 3. The Brooklyn Park lawmaker was elected in 2004 and is only the third woman to serve as speaker.

Following an election that saw her DFL caucus retain control of the House and add a DFL majority in the Senate, Hortman will, for the first time as speaker, have a DFL trifecta to ease the path for DFL policy, spending and tax priorities.

MinnPost spoke to Hortman about the election and the upcoming session. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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MinnPost: I’ll make this quick and painless. Well, maybe not painless. You probably have shoveling to do.

Melissa Hortman: No. But I do have bills to talk to the revisor about.

MP: So how surprised were you on election night?

MH: That’s a hard question to answer because I believed that we would win. But I’m always surprised by the results of an election. So I expected to be surprised in some way. I expected something to happen that nobody predicted. In 1998, the first time I ran, Jesse Ventura was elected governor, In 2002. the second time I ran, we lost Paul Wellstone in a plane crash and Minnesota didn’t elect Walter Mondale. In 2006, we got 85 DFL members. In 2020, I’ll never forget, Gov. Walz called me on Election Day and said, you guys are gonna pick up seats. So this year I felt like a trifecta was possible because of what happened in Kansas (voters rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have paved the way for abortion restrictions).

I sat in front of the whole Capitol community at the session priorities dinner in 2022, and people said, ‘do you know what’s gonna happen in the 22 election?’ I said, ‘Roe v. Wade is gonna be overturned. We’ve known that since Donald Trump got elected in 2016. Roe was on the ballot in 2016. There will be another school shooting between now and then. The new maps will favor Democrats because people live in the areas now that Democrats represent.’ So I predicted we would have a plan that would favor Democrats in redistricting. And all those things happened, and all those things were a factor. What you can’t predict ahead of time in an election cycle to any degree of accuracy: What will be the issues that drive the electorate?

MP: I wanna shift you to public safety. I thought public safety would be a bigger issue and certainly it is with certain voters. But it wasn’t, at least it did not appear to be, the determining issue in swing districts, particularly suburban districts. Why not? 

MH: I think men don’t, some men, don’t get it, what happened with Roe v. Wade. I will tell you, when the Dobbs decision came out, I was livid for two to three solid weeks. I was so angry, and I didn’t expect to react that way. I knew when Donald Trump got elected, I knew when Brett Kavanaugh got confirmed and Neil Gorsuch got confirmed and Amy Coney Barrett got confirmed, I knew when they had the oral argument, it was extremely clear that this was exactly what they were going to do. Yet when it happened, I was beside myself angry. If you don’t have bodily autonomy, you don’t have anything else. None of the rest of it matters.

Were people concerned about crime? Definitely. Sure. That’s a very significant public policy issue. We all want public safety that works for everyone. Do we care about inflation? We certainly care when we go to the grocery store that milk and eggs are so much more expensive than they used to be. But if you have an ectopic pregnancy or you have twins and they can’t both survive or you are miscarrying and doctors cannot provide you the care you need, none of the rest of that matters.

I mean, it’s just, it’s very secondary to whether you have the capacity to make your own health care decisions to save your life. So, as my rage subsided, but my determination persisted, I figured that that would be the same thing for the voters.

MP: What do you do, once session comes in, on the abortion issue?

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MH: As quickly as possible we put into statute a protection for Minnesotans’ reproductive freedoms and their bodily autonomy and their right to make their own health care decisions. And then we expeditiously consider putting that into the constitution. 

MP: Within a month?

MH: Yeah.

MP: What other early wins might there be.

MH: Banning conversion therapy is high on the list because it’s a policy that doesn’t cost money. It’s again about protecting fundamental human rights. We’re currently working through with the Senate and the governor’s office on, can we do something fast on (federal tax) conformity? Can we do something fast on investments in education or childcare and public safety? The difficulty there is money always gets much more complicated than policy. So the policy things are a little bit easier to sketch out.

MP: What about driver’s licenses for undocumented residents?

MH: Driver’s licenses for all, I would hope to get done in January too. I don’t know how many committees that one has to go to. With (reproductive) choice, we’ve mapped out the committee path and we know precisely the timeline. I don’t know how many committees driver’s licenses for all has to go through. My hope would be that we could pass it through the Minnesota House of Representatives before Jan. 31.

MP: You mentioned  public safety. There are different approaches to that as far as funding cops and/or community interventions.

MH: There’s a lot more than that. There’s a lot of investments we can make at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for evidence processing. They’re very delayed on processing evidence and this is a significant public safety issue. (Additional) prosecutors that Attorney General Keith Ellison would like in order to prosecute violent crime in Greater Minnesota. That’s a very small amount of money that should be able to move quickly. We’re hoping to get him the resources he needs for violent crime prosecution. Republicans were unwilling to do it. Then they campaigned against Keith Ellison for not having the money to do it. So we’ll take care of that. 

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MP: The surplus is $17.6 billion. Is there such a thing as too much money?

MH: No. There will be a wide range of things that we will be considering doing. Tax cuts will certainly be part of the conversation. But looking to the future, you know that Minnesota has a volatile tax collection system and we have in the past swung from surplus to deficit because of the way that our tax system is structured. (Former Gov.) Mark Dayton’s legacy of eight years of being governor was to leave the state in a condition with significantly healthy reserves so as the economy has its ups and downs that we won’t lurch from a high surplus to a low deficit. So we have to be mindful of that. But there’s a full array of options on the table.

MP: OK. But you’ve kind of been lurching toward pretty significant surpluses lately.

MH: COVID changed the world, right? Obviously, what happened during COVID was people switched from spending money on services which are not taxed to spending money on goods which are taxed. So that just radically shifted tax collections.

MP: But income tax collections did well too.

MH: Remember when COVID struck, we didn’t know what was going to happen to the economy, right? Trump was president and he passed CARES Act 1 and CARES Act 2 and pumped money into the economy because of the fear that we were going to hit the wall and could go into a depression. So there was a lot of government action under both Trump and Biden in response to COVID to make sure that the economy didn’t go into free fall. And what I don’t think anybody realized when we were taking all those federal actions was how well we would be able to shift to online work and how much of the economy could continue to operate. I mean, certainly there was a lot of pain in those sectors where people did in-person work. There was a lot of unemployment there. But when you looked at the overall functioning of the economy, I think the economy fared way, way better than people expected. So the surplus is not necessarily that we’re collecting a lot more money than we were in the past, but it’s a lot more than was projected, partly because we thought things might completely fall apart.

MP: About $12 billion of the surplus is considered one-time money that won’t continue to be collected in the future. What might you spend  one-time money on?

MH: Infrastructure. When it comes to infrastructure, the Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature have been kind of like Lucy with the football. And the Democrats have been like Charlie Brown. We want to build stuff. We want to pass bonding bills. But because we have this much cash, I don’t intend to give Lucy the football anymore. We don’t need to persuade recalcitrant Republicans who have unrealistic conditions to play ball anymore. Certainly I would love to work with Republicans and have great bipartisan bills and use general obligation bonds where appropriate. But it’s good for the people of Minnesota that Republicans won’t stand in the way of investing in our infrastructure, like wastewater treatment plants, the University of Minnesota system and the Minnesota State System.

MP: OK, that’s $2 billion of the surplus …

MH: Well, $2 billion this year, $2 billion next year.

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MP: What about the tax side? You have indicated that you don’t think there is an appetite in your caucus for rebate checks

MH: There might be. We have 19 new people in our caucus. We have a lot of people who have no idea what are all the options  that could be in a tax bill. And  since I can only lose three people on anything and get it through, I can’t tell you right now where everybody’s going to be. The members will put bills in and we have this bottom-up process where the members will, over the course of the session, determine what’s in the bills and what we have the votes for. So it’s a little hard to walk in the door and say exactly where our team’s going to be when nearly a third of them have never served as representatives.

MP: Without predicting what you have a majority for, what do you think your caucus will be interested in?

MH: A lot of things will be in the mix. I know for sure that (DFL Rep.) Dave Lislegard will be introducing  the social security tax cut. We know that the governor’s proposed rebate checks will be in the mix. Our caucus has been really focused on dependent care tax credits and making sure that the people who get the money need the money. Whether we look at checks or tax cuts, there are people who are struggling to get by and there are people who are not struggling. There are people who are worse off after COVID, and there are people who are no different and there are people who are better off. So I think we’ll be looking at a variety of mechanisms.

Property taxes are a big concern for us. When we had that bipartisan agreement on the tax conference committee report last year, the portion that Democrats fought for and got was property tax cuts for senior citizens and for renters. That’s where Democrats are more active because the property tax doesn’t care what your income is. We have programs that can take your income into account. So if you’re a senior citizen living on a fixed income, we have programs that we can enhance to make it easier for you to afford your property taxes and stay in your home.

MP:  What about gun safety? 

MH: Those are things I would also like to fast track — background checks and red flag laws. Florida adopted a very good red flag law that they call ERPO — Extreme Risk Protection Orders. And the very conservative Florida Sheriff’s Association, according to the White House, says this law has been used 8,000 times in Florida. And the sheriffs are very supportive of it. That’s one that  I’m looking forward to having our team work on. And then  background checks. It has brought support among voters, including gun owners.

MP: Your rules committee voted Wednesday to move ahead with the  renovation and expansion of the State Office Building. Tell me why that’s necessary and are we seeding another Senate Office Building political controversy?

MH: This is something that (House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler) has been working on since 2021 when our safety profile changed dramatically. I think Jan. 6, 2021 and the insurrection — the very violent attempted overthrow of the U.S. government on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol — surprised all of us and had some very real impacts here in Minnesota. That was following a summer of significant civil unrest where we had … to put a fence around the Capitol that stayed up for a very long time. And then when Jan. 6, 2021 happened, the threats shifted from threats to the infrastructure of  the state capital itself to individual members. In January of 2021, I spent $1,600 of my own money staying at a place that was not my house due to threats against me. And I was not the only one who had threats of violence against them.

Minnesota State Office Building proposed exterior view from the northeast
BWBR/Robert A.M. Stern Architects/MOCA
Minnesota State Office Building proposed exterior view from the northeast
We’ve had a lot of input from the Department of Administration over time that we needed to do something about the State Office Building because of the heating and ventilation systems. I mean, it’s truly a sick building. There’s not safe ingress and egress in the case of an emergency, and it’s not safe in terms of active  shooter situations. A bill was passed in 2021, passed a Democratic House, passed the Republican Senate, and was signed into law by the governor. And then the behind-the-scenes process of having meetings with all the building tenants started happening between the engineers and the architects. There were Republicans and Democrats and the Secretary of State and the Legislative Coordinating Commission. All those folks involved in a series of  meetings this fall to put together a list of proposed needs and proposed ways to respond …  I didn’t realize how bad the (Americans with Disabilities Act) problems were until we started to dive into this process a little deeper. We have some very significant ADA problems as well. So this has been a long time coming and I think that Ryan Winkler deserves a lot of credit for  taking the leadership role and working with (Minority Leader) Kurt Daudt on this and getting this to a point where we made a decision and are moving forward.

MP: Is this the year for sports betting and legal cannabis?

MH: I believe that we will pass adult-use cannabis in the Minnesota House. We have passed that before. I believe that my caucus has gotten more progressive on that issue and not less so. I suspect that we still have the votes. I don’t know about the Minnesota Senate. I would be surprised if they didn’t also have the votes. I know that the governor is on board. I would expect it will be in the governor’s budget, which is a massive step forward because it’s his agencies that need to implement the law … But this is a very time consuming bill. This is not like enshrining reproductive freedom into statute. This is not something you can do in three weeks.  It will take a long time to get the bill through the House and the Senate and for the governor’s team to all have it in a position where it can be done well.

MP: And sports betting?

MH: I believe that that will get done as well. We had a very thoughtful process that we went through. I think the sports betting bill had like seven hearings in the Minnesota House in ‘21 or ‘22 or both together. Then, the Minnesota Senate really slept on it, and they had a quickie hearing like three days before we adjourned in ‘22. But we’ve done the homework on this and I think we’re ready and we’re working in alignment with the stakeholders and so I believe that that will also get done. But again, I can only speak for the House. 

MP: What didn’t we talk about?

MH: Climate. We will probably require that utilities generate 100% of our electricity from renewable sources — clean carbon-free sources — by 2040. That will move pretty quickly as well, I believe. Investment in public education. Making health care more affordable. We will be taking action hopefully pretty quickly on price gouging and on an economy that works for everyone.

Paid family medical leave. You didn’t ask about that. We will probably move that as quickly as we can and pre-fund that with some of the one-time money in the surplus so that it can get going sooner. In most states where they’ve adopted that they can’t start providing the leave until they’ve had a few years of collecting. We’ll be able to fast-track that. Also, choice — we talked about that — gun violence prevention, and then protection of democracy. That was a huge issue. (Secretary of State) Steve Simon got more votes than anybody else. That tells you that voters are concerned about the Jan. 6 kind of stuff with people trying to overturn elections and all that nonsense. The attack on Paul Pelosi in October, I think certainly had an impact. I think it reanimated those thoughts and feelings we heard from people after the Jan. 6 hearings in the summer. We’ll be moving to do all sorts of things to secure people’s rights to vote and make it easier to vote rather than harder.