Politics and Government

Capitol roundup: Marijuana bill headed to Walz after Senate passage

People stand and wait
Senators wait as votes are tallied on the adult-use marijuana bill at the State Capitol in St. Paul on Friday, April 28, 2023.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The Minnesota Senate voted 34-32 early Saturday morning to pass a bill legalizing cannabis for use by people 21 and older, teeing up the measure for the governor’s signature. 

Gov. Tim Walz has said he plans to sign the bill into law, making Minnesota the 23rd state to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

The state has had a medical marijuana program for nearly a decade that started with oils, pills and other non-smokable forms. Leaf form was authorized for that program in 2021. Fewer than half of the other states allow people to grow their own.

“The prohibition on cannabis has had tremendously negative impacts on the lives of Minnesotans, especially our communities of color, and it is time for us to change course, create a system that works for adult-use cannabis, and create a regulated market for Minnesota,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville.

The bill would set up a new board to oversee licensing of cannabis retailers, and sponsors said that process could take up to 18 months to roll out. Before that — starting in August — the bill would allow adults to grow and possess limited quantities of marijuana without criminal penalties. 

Individuals could possess two pounds at their homes and two ounces on their person. And they could grow up to eight plants as long as only four are mature at any given time. 

Dispensaries offering cannabis products will be further away, perhaps a year to 18 months from now.

Republicans countered that there are still too many questions about impaired driving, addiction and mental health consequences for the state to take such a dramatic step.

“I don’t believe that this bill in front of us today is ready. I have concerns about what it will mean for public safety, the limited local control and the limits on local decision-making for our communities, “said Sen. Jordan Rasmusson, R-Fergus Falls, said. “I’m also concerned about putting our kids’ health at risk and creating an unworkable system that will not get rid of the black market.”

Under the proposal:

  • Adults 21 years old and up would be able to purchase, possess and use marijuana, although there would be penalties for providing it to minors.

  • The state would impose a 10 percent tax rate, which is lower than a lot of other places where it is sold legally. The proceeds would be used toward fostering the legal market through start-up grants and other regulatory steps. Eighty percent would flow to state coffers and the rest would be earmarked for local governments.

  • Cities and counties could cap the number of cannabis retailers based on population size, with at least one for every 12,500 in a jurisdiction. There would be a floor and communities could issue more licenses.

  • Criminal records of past marijuana offenses could be expunged. That automatic process for the lowest-level crimes would start in August but reach into 2024. More complicated cases would go before a new board for review.

Nursing home funding feud at center of humans services debate

The House and Senate passed the final version of a human services budget bill that props up care services for the elderly and vulnerable after extensive debate about the impact it could have on nursing homes.

The Senate voted 35-32 for the package that covers facility reimbursements and worker wage rates. And the House passed it on a 71-61 vote. The measure now goes to the governor’s desk for his signature.

The bill would boost personal care attendant pay, create new recruitment and retention incentive grants for caregivers, start up a new $100 million zero-interest loan program for struggling nursing homes and increase funding for group homes. Taken together, the pieces could have a significant impact, DFL lawmakers said.

“What you have before you today is a transformative historical investment, a generational investment,” Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, said. “We have a $100 million investment in the nursing facility with $90 million for workforce incentives. These are amazing resources that are needed to support those who need it the most.”

Republicans in both chambers echoed concerns from long-term care providers around the state and said that the bill won’t provide the immediate financial help that nursing homes need. 

“We’re going to create space for nursing homes so they can take out loans when they’re already closing, when they’ve already borrowed all the money they can possibly borrow,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said. “Your response to nursing homes is pathetic.”

GOP lawmakers have pressed Democrats for an additional $200 million to be spent to help nursing homes weather staffing issues, higher inflation and decreased capacity due to staffing. But those conversations didn’t appear to succeed as of Friday evening.

MinnesotaCare buy-in, looser abortion restrictions in health bill

Minnesota lawmakers late Friday unveiled a broad health and human services bill set to come up for a vote, likely on Monday.

A health and human services conference committee made public its report that would expand eligibility for MinnesotaCare, the state-run insurance program, and make people in the country without authorization eligible for the program. 

The proposal would also strike existing restrictions on abortion in the state and pull state funding from centers that advocate for abortion alternatives.

A Ramsey County judge last summer deemed some of the restrictions unconstitutional and blocked them. Democrats said the ruling proves the laws should be struck.

The bill would also create a new Department of Children and families and require more transparency of health care providers about costs for services and treatments. Lawmakers are expected to advance the bill to the House and Senate floors in the coming days.

A new state flag, election worker protections in state gov bill

Both chambers also sent a $1.5 billion budget bill to the governor that will fund state agencies, create new protections for election workers and set up a board to study ways to boost voter turnout.

The proposal would also replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, set up a commission to redesign the state’s flag and seal, and allow the Capitol electrolier to be lit more than twice a year.

“I'm really proud of this work, because this is the piece of legislation that will serve the people who deserve a government that is functional, modern, reliable, durable. And this bill does that,” Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-Saint Paul, said.

Republicans said some of the proposals pulled power from the Legislature and they said they were being adopted without bipartisan support.

“We gave up the Legislature's oversight and authority and things that are vital and critical,” Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, said. “We always represent very diverse communities. That's why we have an election and why our representation is delineated all throughout the state, to govern and make these decisions that are hard and important for the state.”