House and Senate prepare to convene Monday

Published 9:00 pm Friday, February 9, 2024

ST. PAUL — Minnesota might be on the verge of a normal legislative session.

The House and Senate convene Monday with a relatively modest agenda after a momentous 2023 session that saw Democrats use their newfound full control of the statehouse to enact practically everything on their ambitious wish list. That included expanded abortion and trans rights, paid family and medical leave, universal free school lunches, child care credits and other aid for families.

“It feels to me like this is going to be — if you will, and we’ll knock on wood — a more normal off-budget year,” Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said. “Focusing on bonding, clean up a few things that need to be cleaned up.”

Email newsletter signup

In even-numbered years, the main task is traditionally a public works borrowing package known as a bonding bill. It’s likely to include close to the $830 million in debt that Walz proposed in January as part of a $982 million package.

The two-year budget was set last year when lawmakers had a $17 billion surplus to tap. The money went mostly to new spending with some for tax cuts. But there isn’t much extra cash this year. Walz and the Senate tax chair say they don’t want to raise taxes.

“Because of the quantity of changes that were made to state law last year, I would anticipate a much less active session this year,” Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said.

There will be one new top leader. Democratic Sen. Erin Murphy, of St. Paul, became Senate majority leader after Sen. Kari Dziedzic, of Minneapolis, stepped back to focus on fighting a cancer recurrence. But Murphy said their agenda for 2024 is as ambitious as it was for 2023.

“We were successful in 2023 because we came prepared to work for the people of Minnesota,” Murphy said.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, of East Grand Forks, said “repairing the damage” from 2023 is the GOP priority.

“No new taxes this year,” he said. And he expressed hope that Democrats might not be as unified. There’s not much money for horse-trading, he said, so they might need Republican votes on some bills.

“I’m much more optimistic about having a bipartisan session than last year,” Johnson said. “It couldn’t get any worse than last year.”

Here’s a look ahead at the session, which must end by May 20:

Bonding

The bonding bill will likely be heavy on noncontroversial projects — roads, bridges and water infrastructure. Taking on new debt requires 60% supermajorities in both chambers. Democrats have only a four-vote majority in the House and just a one-seat edge in the Senate, Republican House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, of Cold Spring, said the price for the needed GOP votes will be a package that equitably distributes projects across the state.

Hortman said “the jury is out” on using cash to beef up the plan, as the governor proposed.

Abortion

The 2023 session eliminated essentially all restrictions on abortion in Minnesota. Democrats are now planning an Equal Rights Amendment to the state constitution that will likely include protections for abortion rights, as well as gender identity and expression. Hortman said they probably won’t put the amendment on the ballot until 2026 because they’ll need more time to engage voters and wage a successful campaign.

Law enforcement

An uproar developed over limits enacted last year on the powers of police who work in schools, known as school resource officers, to restrain disruptive students, one of several restrictions on the use of force passed since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer in 2020. Several departments withdrew officers from schools, calling the rules unworkable. Democrats rejected Republican calls for a special session to craft a fix before classes resumed last fall, but they’ve set the first hearing for Monday on a bill they say will provide the clarity that police and schools want. GOP Sen. Zach Duckworth, of Lakeville, says he’s “genuinely happy” that Democrats now agree the law needs to be fixed.

Sports betting

Sports betting might becomes legal after years of struggles. The thorniest issue has been whether tribal casinos should have a monopoly, or whether horse tracks and sports stadiums should get a piece of the action. GOP Sen. Jeremy Miller proposes to bridge the gap by allowing tribes to enter into partnerships with tracks and stadiums to allow betting at those facilities. But serious dealmaking will be needed to win enough bipartisan support to bring wagering over the finish line. Johnson puts the odds at 50-50.

Assisted suicide

A House committee has already kicked off the debate over allowing physician-assisted suicide for patients with less than six months to live. Ten states allow it, while proponents plan fresh pushes in several others. While the Democratic majorities backed other “personal autonomy” measures in 2023, it’s not clear if there are enough votes for assisted suicide, since at least one Democratic senator is opposed. Johnson said he hasn’t heard of any Senate Republicans who support it.

Immigration

Some Democrats want to make Minnesota a “sanctuary state” for immigrants without permanent legal status. They would bar state and local governments from sharing data or collaborating with federal authorities on civil immigration enforcement. They say the state should not help the feds enforce laws that they see as broken. Republicans vow a fight. “Minnesotans really are looking for secure borders,” Demuth said.

Cannabis

The Legislature last year legalized recreational marijuana, but lawmakers will revisit the massive bill to fix snags that have arisen. Retail sales can’t begin statewide until a full regulatory system is in place. That’s not likely until early 2025, although a couple tribes now run dispensaries.

State flag

A commission created by the Legislature to redesign a state flag and seal that many Native Americans considered racist finished work in December, producing a simpler flag that echoes Minnesota’s motto of being the North Star State and a seal that features the state bird, a loon. But there’s been a backlash against the designs and the selection process, and some Republican lawmakers plan to try to reverse the decision.