By Michelle Griffith, Minnesota Reformer
Minnesota lawmakers gavel in the 2024 legislative session on Monday, armed with a short list of priorities compared to last year’s historic session — and carrying a far smaller pot of money.
Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators, who control both the House and Senate with narrow majorities, last year passed most of their progressive priorities — many years in the making — like legalizing recreational cannabis, creating a paid family and medical leave program and passing gun regulations. It implemented a $72 billion two-year budget and spent the state’s $17.6 billion budget surplus.
This year will look relatively slow-paced compared to 2023’s breakneck speed. The state will release its next budget forecast in the coming weeks, which will inform lawmakers how much money they have to spend.
“There will certainly be less on the spending side, but I do think that our members have many ideas that they’re passionate about for their communities,” said House Majority Leader Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis. “I do anticipate that this session will be a productive one and we’ll have a lot of wins coming out of the session for Minnesotans.”
A new Senate majority leader
Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, was elected Senate majority leader by her colleagues less than a week before session began. Former Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, announced Feb. 2 that she would step down from leadership after learning her cancer has returned. Dziedzic will still represent her northeast Minneapolis district.
Murphy, who gave little away during a recent interview with the Reformer, did share that she’s determined to follow in Dziedzic’s footsteps and keep the caucus’ narrow 34-33 majority unified, using Dziedzic’s model: consistent, behind-the-scenes conversations with fellow senators.
“I’m going to continue to build on her model — working through each issue, engaging members of our caucus, because there are 34 of us who are talented, who are strong,” Murphy said. “We’re all leaders in our own right, and we will build on that strength to assure that we are able to move an agenda together.”
Murphy will need to unite her more moderate and left-wing colleagues, some of whom over the interim were sharply divided over the Israel-Hamas War, exchanging sharp emails in November. When asked about the divide, Murphy said, “I think that it is fair to say that as we watch the continuation of a war in the Middle East, that people have their own experiences with that, and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Despite the leadership shakeup days before the session began, senators are ready to do the work of a typical non-budget-year legislative session, Murphy said. That includes a debt-financed construction package, tweaking the bills that need fixes and introducing some new policy.
An infrastructure package
Lawmakers say their biggest priority is passing an infrastructure package — colloquially known as a bonding bill because the state typically relies on borrowed money for construction projects on roads, bridges, wastewater plants, as well as maintenance of university buildings and other state assets.
The Legislature typically passes infrastructure packages during even-numbered years, but last year lawmakers approved a $2.6 billion infrastructure bill after a split Legislature had stalled critical public works spending for two years.
Gov. Tim Walz last month announced his $982 million infrastructure package proposal, with about $819 million of it borrowed through general obligation bonds. Nearly half of Walz’s proposed funding is allocated to maintenance on existing infrastructure, and lawmakers are expected to propose a similar package.
Borrowing money through bonds requires a three-fifths legislative supermajority. Last year, Republicans leveraged their needed votes to advocate for more nursing home funding. Republicans and the DFL majority agreed in the final days of the session to an extra $300 million for nursing homes.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said Republicans this year are prepared to do the same, especially if the bonding bill includes projects outside of nuts and bolts infrastructure like roads, bridges and wastewater plants.
“We’re in a better position. We have more leverage now that (Democrats) can’t just paper over with money, you know, within their own caucus and horse trade amongst themselves,” Johnson said. “I think for our caucus, it should be a very good year where we can have some leverage and have some impact on policy.”
Legalizing medically assisted suicide
DFL lawmakers are hoping to legalize medically assisted suicide this year. The legislation would allow a person to request lethal medication they can take themselves if they’re deemed mentally capable — meaning they have the ability to make informed decisions. The patient has to have been diagnosed with a terminal disease, have six months or less left to live and be 18 or older. The “mentally capable” requirement means people with dementia wouldn’t qualify.
Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, has proposed a version of medically assisted suicide legislation since 2015. During a press conference last month, Frieberg said this year he’s optimistic a DFL majority can finally get the bill over the finish line.
“I don’t believe this is a partisan issue, but I do think, you know, having a pro-choice majority in the House and Senate certainly helps its chances,” he said. “We prioritize bodily autonomy, and that’s what this does at the last moment people can exercise their bodily autonomy.”
Ten states — including Oregon, New Jersey, Montana, New Jersey and New Mexico — have legalized physician-assisted suicide.
The bill’s opponents say assisting in someone’s death is immoral, and since the bill has no residency requirement, out-of-state patients could travel to Minnesota for physician-assisted suicide.
Bet it all!
Legalized sports betting has swept the country since the Supreme Court ruled the Congress couldn’t stop it in 2018, but it hasn’t reached sports-crazed Minnesotans just yet.
Democrats say they won’t make any major changes to gambling law without the support of the Native tribes that currently control most of the gambling market, and the tribes are in no hurry to give their nod without some significant benefit to their members.
The issue polls well, however, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers — not to mention a bevy of influential lobbyists — have been working on the issue for years.
Maybe this will be the year more Minnesotans will be able to legally win or lose fortunes on our local teams.
A slew of legislative fixes
DFL lawmakers during the 2023 session passed big agenda items. Working quickly on complex bills that were often hundreds of pages long, lawmakers also made some errors in drafting legislation, including one that could cost taxpayers $352 million over two years if it’s not corrected.
Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, has a fix already drafted that will receive its first hearing Monday. Expect Republicans to cite the error often as an example of sloppy legislating and a reason for voters to restore divided government to Minnesota.
Among other reversals, DFL lawmakers are proposing a bill that would walk back portions of a law passed last session that limits how school police can physically restrain students. It’s scheduled for its first hearing in the House on Monday.
The bill would repeal a ban on school police from putting students in the prone position, or face down, as former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin restrained George Floyd, killing him.
There’s an election coming
The 134 seats of the Minnesota House are up for reelection in November. The Senate is not. Republicans are desperate to break up the DFL’s trifecta. Democrats hold a six-seat majority in the House, and seven DFL lawmakers have announced they don’t intend to run again for another term.
Republicans are already campaigning on the new Minnesota state flag, as well as the costly renovation of the office building that houses the offices of the 134 members of the Minnesota House. But DFL leaders expect to continue advancing their progressive bills.
For example, nearly three dozen Democrats have signed on to a bill that would make Minnesota a so-called sanctuary state, which prohibits state and local agencies from cooperating with federal immigration authorities to deport people. The bill has drawn fierce opposition from Republicans, whose standard bearer former President Donald Trump has made immigration a central focus of his reelection campaign.
Long, the House majority leader, said he believes the majority of Minnesotans will be happy with the work they do this session, as it will largely be working off of the legislation they passed last year. Long said he believes Minnesotans will support the DFL again in November.
“Republicans are not in step with Minnesotans in terms of their priorities,” Long said. “When folks see the good work we’re doing to try to help them afford their lives and help stand up for their fundamental rights, they’re going to be grateful and reward that.”
One thing is certain: Leaders of both parties — especially in the House — will view every issue through the November lens.
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