Legislative session nears halfway point with much done and much left to do

Published 9:04 am Monday, March 6, 2023

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By Dana Ferguson

After two months working at an unhesitating clip, DFLers said they’re pleased with what they’ve done so far at the Minnesota Capitol. And they feel confident that other top priorities such as a two-year budget, a paid family and medical leave program, and additional financial relief for families are still in reach.

“What we accomplished is what (the voters) sent us to accomplish,” Gov. Tim Walz said Friday, after ticking off a series of policies that the DFL trifecta at the Capitol has passed so far. “The problem we’ve got is we’re comparing it to the gridlock and the inaction we’ve seen for a decade. This is the way it should be.”

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So far, lawmakers have approved and the governor has signed into law 12 bills and another is set to be signed into law on Tuesday. And after expediting bills in committees, both the House of Representatives and the Senate stand ready to take up dozens of bills that have come to them for a final vote.

“We are passing a lot of bills. We have a lot of new laws, and we are changing lives for the better,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Friday after the governor signed into law a plan to let people convicted of a felony vote after serving out their prison or jail sentence.

But tougher discussions lie ahead as lawmakers craft a more than $50 billion budget, decide how to divvy up the state’s $17.5 billion budget surplus, and take on a raft of policy changes over the next 10 weeks.

Republicans at the Capitol have said the first bills passed don’t represent the top issues facing most Minnesotans. GOP leaders have put forward plans to use the state’s whopping budget surplus for a tax cut and put up extra funds so schools can reset their approach to teaching kids how to read.

“What the Democrats have been focused on lately is making sure that felons can vote and there’s a number of social type of issues that we didn’t hear at the doors,” Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said. “So we are trying to address Minnesotans’ problems that they are dealing with right now.”

Since they’re in the minority, Republicans have little recourse to block the DFL agenda, beyond stalling or trying to bring amendments that could retool their bills. But Johnson said that with bigger conversations around the two-year state budget and a capital investment bill coming to the fore, Republicans could have more of a say.

The Minnesota House is set to weigh a $1.9 billion capital investment bill on Monday. And with details of the bill being worked on until the last minute, its chances are uncertain. Republicans in the chamber have kept their cards to their chests about the list of public projects set to come up for a vote.

Minority parties hold a key role in conversations about the capital investment bill — known at the Capitol as the bonding bill — since the constitution requires a three-fifths majority in each chamber to approve plans to sell bonds to fund projects.

In the Senate, a bonding bill seems to have a dicier path. GOP lawmakers there said they want to consider a bill, but not before they see movement on a tax cut.

Committees will also work late this week to approve sizable numbers of bills before the first deadline on Friday.

The bills that don’t make it through a committee will fall away for now. But the filter isn’t expected to deter headline bills for the year that would create a paid family leave program, legalize marijuana for recreational use, allow for sports betting and make free meals available to all students.

Budget, tax and bonding-related bills are immune from the deadline, so new ideas could pop up and make their way into final proposals for several more weeks.