DFL Gov. Tim Walz was sworn in for a second term on Monday, and the Minnesota Legislature will hold swearing-in ceremonies and gavel into session on Tuesday afternoon.
Here are seven things to keep an eye on as the 2023 session of the Minnesota Legislature convenes. A surprising DFL trifecta will take power for the first time in a decade. But that has both positives and negatives for Walz and legislative leaders.
Will anything pass early?
It is one of the great clichés of the Minnesota Legislature that certain issues can pass in the opening weeks and provide “early wins.” Such early wins will then goose the new session into action, craft a spirit of cooperation and, just maybe, re-earn the love of the citizenry.
As with most state myths like Vikings Super Bowls and thundersnow, they rarely happen in real life. Is this year different?
One: Early wins are easier to come by when the same party controls the House, the Senate and the holder of the black pen in the governor’s office. Certainly DFLers can agree that certain acts are worthy — and worthy of quick action. Two: There is less motivation to hold bills and issues hostage for later bargaining as there is in a divided Legislature where everything is linked. But, three: Early wins are less necessary to set the stage for cooperation as they were in the era of divided government.
Still, DFL leaders have promised to work quickly on a bill to repeal a prohibition on undocumented residents to gain driver’s licenses. That ability was removed by rule when Republican Tim Pawlenty was governor. Attempts to restore it have passed one house but not the other, at least once when DFLers controlled both chambers.
Both chambers appear to have abortion-rights majorities and could send a statement with early bills solidifying access following the election where abortion was a significant issue for the majority caucuses. House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she hopes to have the right to abortion in state law by the end of January and then begin work on a constitutional amendment.
The DFL could also pass what is known as tax conformity, which reconciles federal tax changes to the state income tax rules. Doing that before the tax deadline makes it easier for filers, which doesn’t mean it has always happened. And such a bill could include tax rebates — if there are enough votes for using part of the $17.6 billion surplus in that way.
Can a state have too much money?
Government finance mavens say more permanent damage can be done by budget surpluses than by budget deficits. The reason is that a wreckless — or perhaps just over enthusiastic — Legislature can overspend or cut taxes too much, making future deficits more likely and deeper.
The effect of spending today on budgets tomorrow is referred to as the tails. If you are not careful, you can develop an especially painful condition, according to Hortman.
“There are different things you can do in a state budget that have small costs this year but when you look out five, 10, 20 years, you can have what we call in state government ‘exploding tails,’” Hortman said during a pre-session leadership panel.
Her majority leader Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, tried to lower expectations, which is a challenge: The record budget surplus is nearly double what had been a record surplus last February, which was $2 billion more than what had been a record surplus of one year ago. Even that surplus was four times any surplus over the previous two decades.
“Eighteen billion is a big number for sure,” Long said after hearing it for the first time. “But the vast majority of that is one-time” with only $6 billion being money that is expected to show up in the next two budgets, at least.
“There will be more needs than we will be able to meet with that money,” he said.
Few have been listening, however, which advocates and their legislative champions not only seeking increases in spending but sounding a similar message that now is the time to go big. Education, paid family leave, child care, affordable housing, construction spending … all have been prefaces for calls to go big.
Can DFLers manage pent-up demands?
Any DFL priority that failed in the Senate over the past six years will now carry an expectation of passage. Certainly with Sen. Kari Dzeidzic of Minneapolis leading the new DFL majority, certain death is no longer the prognosis for DFL priorities. They might even get hearings.
But just because a DFLer supported something in the past doesn’t mean there are enough DFL votes in the House and Senate to pass them into law. Proponents will ask, however, forcefully at times.
Paid family leave, investments in affordable housing, tenant rights, tuition-free community college, expanded child care subsidies, gun safety, a carbon-free energy future … DFLers will be pressured to keep promises on these and other issues.
What’s more difficult to navigate, a Legislature divided by party or ideology?
The DFL will have total control of state government after flipping the state Senate. In theory, that makes it easier to pass DFL priorities. But rather than unite to contend against Republicans, Democrats will be forced to navigate the ideological differences within their own ranks and satisfy both more progressive members from the heart of the Twin Cities and more conservative lawmakers from Greater Minnesota.
In the House, the DFL can only lose two votes on any piece of legislation if Republicans band together. In the Senate, Democrats only have a one-vote advantage. That means any DFL lawmaker can hold up a bill if it has no GOP support.
Infighting has already started. When DFL leaders recently said they opposed repealing the state tax on Social Security benefits, it drew a rebuke from a handful of incoming state Senators who gave the DFL its majority because those soon-to-be legislators had campaigned on ending the tax.
How will Democrats address public safety and policing?
A case in point on Democratic infighting might be how the party approaches crime and police.
Last year, the DFL was cleaved into factions at times over whether to spend money to help police departments recruit, hire and retain officers. Many centrist DFLers favored heavier spending on cops as they geared up for a campaign season in which Republicans tied Democrats to increased crime and accused the party’s flirtation with defunding police for decimated police ranks and low morale.
Meanwhile, more progressive lawmakers hoped to fund police alternatives like community violence intervention nonprofits and efforts to improve community relations with police departments they say still have bad reputations or aren’t fully trusted by many.
Bills last year to create a $1 million pro-cop advertising campaign and fund a $16 million program to recruit and retain police officers split DFLers.
In the end, House DFLers crafted a bill with a little bit of everything. But negotiations with the Republican-led Senate failed, so nothing passed. And with a new DFL trifecta this year, there could be renewed debates over police reforms and limits on law enforcement power — such as a ban on no-knock search warrants — that could draw fierce debate all over again.
Will Republicans be able to make much of an impact?
Republicans lost their foothold in state government, but they will surely try to influence legislation anyway in the narrowly divided House and Senate. One way to do that is by testing DFL cohesion by amending bills with issues that divide the party.
Sen. Bill Weber, a Republican from Luverne, told MinnPost in December that Republicans will have to make effective relationships with Democrats. But they will also push them at times.
“Quite frankly there are some of the new Democrats that were very bold and said they weren’t scared to vote against their caucus,” Weber said. “Well, as part of the minority, we’ll give them the opportunity to do that a few times down the road.”
If there’s a blueprint for lawmakers keeping infighting to a minimum, it might be Republicans in the state Senate, who were quite adept at holding together as a group. And Democrats have already floated the idea of taking away one of the only real leverage sources Republicans expected to have.
Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she wants to pay for a large bill of construction projects with cash rather than general obligation bonds — which require a 60 percent majority vote in the House and Senate to approve. Without a bonding bill to negotiate with, Republicans might not have any significant power.
Is this the year the Minnesota Legislature loosens up?
Two issues that once were considered vices have gone mainstream across the U.S.: sports betting and recreational marijuana. Minnesota has hardly been a pace-setter on either, but both have a pretty good chance of passing in some form over the next two years, and both have tacit approval from Walz.
The DFL House passed both a recreational marijuana and a sports betting bill over the last two sessions only to see them fail in the GOP Senate. That Senate majority was cool to legal marijuana and had different approaches to sports betting, which fell apart over the details — what role the state’s Indian tribes would play and what role the state’s horse tracks would play. DFL control gives marijuana a chance, and it is more likely now that a betting regime friendlier to the tribes than the tracks is the path.
There is also a new motivator to pass a marijuana bill: fixing a law that slipped through the Legislature to legalize — but not tax or regulate — the sale of hemp-based edibles. Any legal marijuana bill would haul this new industry into the same taxation and regulatory scheme as cannabis, which would likely limit the products’ availability. It could even reduce the use of hemp-based edibles once cannabis products are legal.
One expansion that won’t happen is beer and wine sales in grocery stories. A deal struck last year by just about everyone in the industry except grocery stores included an unofficial but potent agreement to not push for further changes in the industry for five years.