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Year in Review: The six biggest things that didn’t happen at the Minnesota Legislature in 2021

Why so much of what elected officials talked about in 2021 — and journalists wrote about in 2021 — didn’t actually come to pass. 

State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm

A wise person once declared that reporters could fill the newspaper each day with all the things that didn’t happen. Not that it would be a good idea, since it’s not really exciting when stuff doesn’t happen (perhaps with the exception of Skylab crashing into the ocean and not, say, Topeka).

Yet so much of what elected officials in Minnesota talked about in 2021 — and what journalists in Minnesota wrote about in 2021 — didn’t actually come to pass that it is hard to overlook. Chalk it up to being the only state in the country with divided state government or just to your run-of-the-mill political dysfunction, but there is clearly a pattern here. Let’s take a look:

1. DFLers didn’t tax the rich

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Joining a national push among Democrats in states across the country and in Congress, Minnesota DFLers were determined to increase taxes on wealthy residents and corporations. The effort was fueled by news coverage and government data that showed wealthier Americans did well during the pandemic and poorer people did worse. The wealthy, therefore, needed to pay their “fair share.”

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There were a couple things that thwarted that effort, however (in addition to Minnesota having one of the nation’s most progressive tax systems, which already taxes the rich more than everyone else). One was GOP opposition. The other was an economic recovery that produced more tax revenue than economists and budget writers could ever predict. 

The recession brought on by COVID, though very real, was also very short, with the negative impacts hitting businesses and their workers in industries shuttered by pandemic closures especially hard. Yet even those hardships were tempered by billions of dollars of federal aid for unemployment compensation, stimulus grants and business grants.

Still, House DFL leaders waited until there was one week left in the legislative session before admitting that there would, in fact, be no tax increases in 2021 — on the rich or anyone else. 

2. State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm was not removed from office

Malcolm has the rare distinction of having served under three governors: two DFLers and one Reform Party. She also has the equally rare distinction of being in charge of the state’s public health response during a global pandemic. And yet, despite her good relations with many senior GOP lawmakers, Malcolm became a symbol of unhappiness among those on the right side of the political spectrum over the economic and social restrictions imposed in response to COVID-19 — grumbling that eventually put her employment under threat.

They weren’t idle threats. Three of Gov. Tim Walz’s commissioners had already been removed by the GOP majority in the Senate under their “advise and consent” powers, either by direct vote or by resignation in the face of such a vote. Walz wasn’t taking any chances with Malcolm. Before he would call a special session to address other issues (see below), he wanted assurances that Republican lawmakers would not go after Malcolm’s job. And while GOP leaders eventually agreed, they replaced their previous threat with a new demand: that Walz lift his mandate that state workers be vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID -19. No session was called. 

3. Tim Walz did not impose a statewide vaccination mandate

This one may come as a surprise to many in the state who might think Walz did or will or might impose such a mandate, given how much some politicians talked about it. Turns out, the DFL governor is likely blocked by state law from ordering vaccinations, even under a peacetime state of emergency. (By the way, Walz hasn’t had emergency powers since August , despite suggestions that he still does. And he lifted a statewide indoor mask mandate in May.) While he did impose a get-vaxxed-or-tested rule for state workers, he did that under workplace safety laws, not emergency powers.

4. Walz did not call a special session of the Legislature

At some point during 2021, there was talk that the governor would call a special session to: give bonuses to essential pandemic workers; help drought-stricken farmers; help hospitals overwhelmed with COVID patients and relieve health care of burdensome regulations.

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The first task, giving away federal money to frontline workers, was the last unfinished business of the 2021 regular session. Given that it was one of four stated objectives of the $2.8 billion in cash directed to Minnesota from the American Rescue Plan, setting aside $250  million seemed the least the politicians could do.

Turns out, giving away money is harder than it looks, and the DFL and GOP task force members fell into familiar talking points. A deal was never reached. Even had it been, Walz might not have called a special session to write the checks without an agreement by Senate GOP leaders to keep their hands off Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm (see above).

5. Minnesota did not return to normal

In fairness, no one had heard of the delta variant when Walz gave his state of the state speech in March. At the time, vaccines were becoming easier to obtain and were deemed safe and effective. The winter was ending and the Twins season had not yet begun. So it is understandable that the governor would sit in his former high school classroom in North Mankato and declare: Brighter days are here, and even more are coming. We are winning the fight against COVID-19.”

Walz also said that getting vaccinated was the way to get back to normal. “Minnesota can and will emerge stronger from this crisis than ever before. The state of our state is strong, Minnesota. This is our goal-line stand. Get vaccinated. We’re coming back.”

Despite plentiful supplies and statewide access, however, there are still 29 percent of eligible Minnesotans who have not had a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine as the delta — and now omicron — variants rage in the state. 

6. The state did not get any less strict about gambling, recreational marijuana or booze

Despite a lot of talk about the issues, the Legislature didn’t legalize recreational marijuana. Or sports betting. In fact, it also didn’t further liberalize alcohol laws and Minnesota did not legalize sports betting.