At stake in 2023 at the Capitol: Abortion, climate, marijuana, tax relief — and lots of cash to spend
The Minnesota Legislature's 2023 session is underway with Democrats in full control of state government, a $17.5 billion surplus and a long list of unfinished priorities.
Lawmakers must pass a state budget this year. And DFL leaders aim to seize their opportunity to tackle policy goals — from enshrining abortion rights in state law to passing long-sought gun control measures.
But Democrats hold only a one-seat majority in the Senate, and their control of the House has narrowed, leaving little room for defectors among the DFL ranks.
Gov. Tim Walz has proposed a $65 billion budget, and must work with legislators to shape the two-year spending plan. Meanwhile, advocates are already lobbying state leaders on spending and tax priorities, including many of the goals left unfinished in the 2022 session when election-season politics hampered negotiations in the divided Legislature.
Here are some of the top issues we're tracking in 2023:
Both DFL-controlled chambers of the Legislature say they now have majorities that support abortion rights. Walz also supports protecting access to abortion, an issue that galvanized many voters after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last June. One of the first bills passed and signed by Walz was the PRO Act, which added a "fundamental right" to abortion in state law.
Last July, a Ramsey County judge ruled that many of the state's longstanding abortion regulations were unconstitutional, including a 24-hour waiting period, informed consent and parental notification requirements. The incoming DFL majorities are interested in stripping those longstanding abortion restrictions from state lawbooks, and not leaving them open to court interpretation.
Minnesota lawmakers did not pass an infrastructure package, widely known as the bonding bill, during the past two sessions. Walz and DFL legislators pressed for substantial infrastructure spending last year, with the governor suggesting a $2.7 billion package and the House DFL proposing a $3.5 billion bill. They plan to prioritize bonding again this session.
This is one area where the minority party holds significant sway because it takes a supermajority to pass the borrowing bill. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, suggested that if Republicans don't work with Democrats on a bonding bill, they could do a cash-only infrastructure package, bypassing the need for a supermajority.
DFL lawmakers have signaled they're ready to get aggressive on implementing Minnesota's climate goals into state law, particularly in the House, where both Hortman and Majority Leader Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, have past experience leading the chamber's energy committee. One key piece of policy that Long and others mentioned is a commitment to completely carbon-free electricity in the state by 2040. This could set up a conflict with Minnesota's utilities, which have later goals for fully clean power.
Lawmakers also mentioned expanding solar programs, electric vehicle infrastructure and weatherization programs. They will face other environmental issues, too, including whether to fund a request for hundreds of millions of dollars for outdoor recreation and conservation from the Department of Natural Resources.
The governor and DFL leaders have signaled they want to use part of the state's record surplus to boost funding for public schools after failing to pass an education spending bill last year.
To what extent is unclear, though House Democrats unsuccessfully sought to increase education funding by $1 billion annually during the 2022 session. That money would have helped schools hire thousands of mental health workers, expand prekindergarten offerings and fund special education programs on the heels of major pandemic-included learning disruptions. Democrats won't have to worry about a GOP-controlled Senate blocking their education funding plans this year.
Lots of bills related to guns have been introduced in the House and Senate, but most of the momentum appears to be focused on two that have been debated in previous years. One proposal would expand criminal background checks to cover most private firearm transfers; the other would create a process known as "red flag" protective orders in which law enforcement, family or household members could petition a court to temporarily take guns away from people deemed dangerous. Indications are that passage hinges on support from certain DFL lawmakers in the closely divided Senate. The bills have yet to move forward.
House and Senate housing committee chairs said they want to create an ongoing state rental assistance program. They hope to pass significant one-time spending to add more workforce and affordable housing, as well as enact policy changes aimed at protecting tenants that include eviction reforms.
Walz has also emphasized the need for additional housing dollars. Minnesota Housing, the state's housing finance agency, receives less than 1% of the state budget. The agency's program needs are at least three to four times higher than what the current funding can supply, according to a Minnesota Housing spokeswoman. She said the Walz administration's priorities include new construction and housing preservation, deeply affordable housing and market-rate housing in greater Minnesota, homelessness prevention, rent assistance and help for first-time homebuyers with down payments.
Lawmakers are poised to seriously consider, if not pass, a recreational marijuana legalization bill this year. The DFL-controlled House passed a marijuana legalization bill in 2021, but Republicans who controlled the Senate at the time blocked it.
Democrats who control both chambers are now expected to move the proposal forward. Walz has called for the Legislature to act quickly, and House Speaker Hortman has said she thinks it could possibly happen in 2023. All eyes will be on the Senate, where Democrats' narrow 34-33 majority leaves no room for defection.
Paid family leave
Democrats have long pushed for a paid family leave program to support workers who need to take time off when they get sick, have a child or need to care for a family member. Walz called it a top priority this session.
Previous DFL proposals that failed to pass would have created a state-managed program. Employers and employees would pay a payroll tax to support a fund, similar to the state's unemployment insurance fund, which could be used to provide people with up to 12 weeks of leave. Some business owners and GOP legislative members have disagreed with the cost and approach.
Key DFLers in the House and Senate introduced a bill to allow sports betting at tribal casinos and on mobile devices but not at the state's two racetracks. Since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it in 2018, all of Minnesota's neighboring states and Canada have legalized some form of sports betting. The bill is expected to advance in the House first with Senate passage an open question. Lead Republicans say the bill must include Shakopee's Canterbury Park or they won't vote for it. The Running Aces track also wants to be included.
Walz wants to use the U.S. Bank Stadium reserve to pay off the building in June. The concept has bipartisan support but would trigger other questions, including what to do with the burgeoning tax revenue from the electronic pulltabs that funds the reserve. Stadium supporters, including the Minnesota Vikings, will want to use some of that ongoing revenue to establish a maintenance reserve for the building. Minneapolis leaders also want relief from their portion of the stadium debt. But a recent Court of Appeals ruling said the electronic pulltabs mimic slot machines in violation of the tribal monopoly on casino gambling.
A plan to eliminate the state tax on Social Security income — a top GOP priority — collapsed at the end of the past session. Walz said he still wants to end the state tax for "90%" of Minnesotans, but told MPR News in December that he believes millionaires and billionaires should continue to pay it. After the massive budget surplus was announced, four DFL senators called for the Social Security tax cut. "As four incoming Senators who helped deliver the majority to the DFL, we will be making this our top budget priority going into the legislative session," they said.
DFL leaders in 2022 pushed for a child tax credit and renter tax credit increase, and they may renew those efforts. Walz has continued his call for direct payments to Minnesotans. He proposed $1,000 for most individuals and $2,000 for couples. The idea hasn't gained much traction among legislative leaders.
The House DFL sought last year to impose criminal and civil penalties for intimidating or threatening election workers and to allow absentee ballots to be counted two weeks before an election instead of the seven days required under current law. Other DFL proposals, such as restoring voting rights for felons who've served their prison time and been released, could also get a serious look with Democrats in control of state government.
In addition, Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon has said he will advocate for a proposal to automatically register eligible people to vote upon getting their driver's license.