Minnesota Democrats wield trifecta of power as legislative session convenes
Minnesota Democrats will assume complete control of state government this week, with an expansive agenda built up over years of divided government and a massive budget surplus to help make their priorities a reality.
Democrats want to use control of the House, Senate and governor's office to codify abortion protections in law, expand voting rights and create a new statewide paid leave program during the legislative session that convenes on Tuesday. Billions of dollars could flow toward new investments in classrooms, child care, climate change initiatives and infrastructure.
"The reason you have political capital is to do something," said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. "Our goal to have a trifecta isn't just to beat Republicans — it is because we want to take action."
The main task is to pass a $54 billion two-year budget, a job that could be made easier by a historic $17.6 billion budget surplus on the bottom line. But much of that extra money is one-time only, and the party must balance pent-up demand from interest groups with a flood of needs as the state continues to crawl out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"A $17.6 billion surplus gives the DFL a lot of opportunities, but it will also create conflict as different legislators have different priorities," said University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson. "There are many groups that have been waiting for or thinking about the possibility of DFL control for a long time."
For the first time in nearly a decade, Democrats won't have Republicans standing in the way of their top priorities. But they'll now have to confront diverging interests within their own coalition on how to provide tax relief and tackle rising crime, and whether to legalize marijuana for adults.
They'll hold slim majorities in both legislative chambers — 70-64 in the House, and a single-vote margin in the Senate — meaning they must stick together to get bills to the desk of DFL Gov. Tim Walz.
"With our 34-vote majority, we are going to look at what we all agree on and get to work on that," said incoming Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, who added that communication will be important.
"The Senate DFL knocked on 500,000 doors during the campaign and we heard from voters that they weren't happy with the gridlock," she added. "We are going to get things done."
Walz and his administration are the third piece of the Democratic trifecta, and he already is speaking in ambitious terms about priorities that languished in his first term under divided government.
He's encouraging legislators to think big on voting rights legislation and is expected to include a proposal to legalize marijuana for adults in his two-year budget plan. Walz also plans to pitch direct tax rebate checks to Minnesotans, an idea that got an icy reception last year from the divided Legislature.
He wants to cut state taxes on Social Security for retirees, but there's tension between Democrats on whether to eliminate taxes on the benefits for everyone or to exclude higher earners.
"It was the number one issue that I heard on the campaign trail, and I continue to hear from constituents that feel like that's an unfair tax," said Grant Hauschild, an incoming freshman DFL senator from Hermantown.
He's among a group of four freshman Senate Democrats who campaigned on eliminating the tax and have staked out the issue as a top budget priority this session. Hauschild also wants Democrats to tread carefully with the surplus, which doesn't account for inflation.
"During the [Gov. Tim] Pawlenty years when we saw major deficits, we saw major gimmicks," he said. "I don't want us to be back in a place where that is happening."
This year is only the second time in the past three decades that Democrats have wielded complete control over state government. In 2013 and 2014, they raised income taxes on the state's highest earners, authorized the renovation of the state Capitol and legalized same-sex marriages.
But there were plenty of intraparty skirmishes during that time. It took almost two years for Democrats to strike a deal to create a state medical marijuana program and raise the minimum wage.
Hortman said Democrats share many priorities but might disagree on how to enact them. She anticipates debate about how to pay for a paid family and medical leave program in the state. And while the party is largely aligned on legalizing cannabis for adults, it might take the Senate longer to review the proposal and bring its narrow majority on board.
"There are going to be moments of frustration on the part of the governor and the House that the Senate can't get there on something," said outgoing Sen.Tom Bakk, I-Cook, who led the Democrats in the Senate the last time the party had control.
Over the past four years, House Democrats knew their priorities were likely to die in the Republican-led Senate. "Now when they want to pass many of those same things, they're going to dump it on the Senate, and if they can't do it, that's going to create some tension," Bakk said.
Republicans in the minority are waiting to go on the attack if tax increases are considered while the state is sitting on a large surplus. Lisa Demuth, the minority leader of the House Republican caucus, said tax hikes should be completely off the table. Previous proposals to create a paid-leave program had proposed using fees on workers and employers to cover costs.
"You've got to pay for it. Republicans are going to call it a tax hike," said Jeff Hayden, a former DFL state senator from Minneapolis. "Democrats are going to have to figure out how to message that in a time of an unprecedented surplus."
The incoming Legislature is the most diverse in state history, including the first Black women ever elected to the state Senate and Minnesota's first transgender legislator. The House People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus will grow to a historic 20 members, many who got involved in politics since the Democrats' last trifecta.
They're advocating for policies that didn't pass back then, such as restoring voting rights for felons on probation and legislation that would allow undocumented Minnesotans to obtain a driver's license.
"We're skewing a little bit younger, fresher perspectives, different voices," said Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, the co-chair of the POCI Caucus. "The last time we had the trifecta, there were some things left on the table. ... Now is the time to take care of those."
A decade ago when Democrats won control in Minnesota, the national political climate was shifting toward Republicans, said Abou Amara, who worked in the House at the time. He thinks the mood is different today, particularly on issues such as abortion rights and paid family leave.
"On the issues that are most salient and important to Minnesotans, those issues are on Democrats' side right now," he said. "It's going to be one of the most consequential legislative sessions in a long time, and with this level of resources you don't necessarily have to pit one thing against another."