As session ends, Democrats ‘run the table’ at Capitol

Speaker Melissa Hortman and the House clerk's staff
House Speaker Melissa Hortman presided over a debate on the last day of the legislative session on Monday.
Matthew Alvarez | MPR News

Updated: 7:21 a.m.

Minnesota lawmakers finished a momentous session Monday night by passing the final elements of a new $72 billion two-year state budget and shaking loose a record-setting construction projects package that was stalled for months. 

It was a year in which they legalized marijuana, guaranteed abortion access, boosted school aid, cut some taxes while raising others and much more. The all-DFL power structure at the Capitol passed its entire agenda — one that Republicans fought but couldn’t stop.

Debate in the session’s final hours echoed what dominated the early weeks. It centered on abortion, specifically a bill repealing laws around data collection, waiting periods and instructions to doctors — some things already weakened by a state court ruling.

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said the laws have demonized doctors and those seeking abortions.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

“People have feelings about abortion. Everyone does,” Liebling said. “And some people believe their feelings should dictate the actions of other people. And that is where I think many of us draw the line.”

Rep. Harry Niska, R-Ramsey, said it was an unfortunate bookend for opponents of abortion and their efforts to promote alternatives.

“It's very clear from House File 1 to the abortion sanctuary law to today, we're past that in this state,” Niska said. “It is a historic and a transformational day. But not one in which any Minnesotan, I think, should be proud.”

A man and woman talk to cameras and microphones
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park and House Majority Leader Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, talk to reporters just after they ended the session for the year on Monday.
Matthew Alvarez | MPR News

Democrats believe the abortion issue helped them outperform historical trends in last fall’s election. And with full control of state government this year came a gusher of progressive policies.

Gov. Tim Walz held frequent signing ceremonies to drive home the messaging: no-cost school meals, bolstered gay rights, new gun measures among them. His office is planning a celebratory budget bill signing in the coming days.

“We have really run the table in a lot of ways in terms of the priorities that we've put forward and the work we've done,” said House Majority Leader Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis. 

Long maintained two poster board lists of the DFL’s top 30 bills for the year. Every one of them has now been checked off. DFL leaders predicted a compact agenda for next year’s session, due to begin on Feb. 12.

Republicans couldn't stop the onslaught, although they were anxious to highlight aspects of the passed legislation they see as out of touch. 

“Republicans represent nearly 50 percent of the state,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks. “And at the end of the day this has been the most partisan session not in my memory, but in the history of this state.”

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said more of the state’s $17.5 billion surplus should have gone to tax cuts, and people will be surprised to see gas taxes, sales taxes and other surcharges go up.

“I think a lot of times the things that are passed here in St. Paul and in the Capitol nobody really pays attention to them outside of this bubble until it starts hitting their wallets,” Demuth said.

A man in front of a lamp
Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, talks to reporters right after the Senate adjourned.
Matthew Alvarez | MPR News

On Sunday, Walz said he’ll eagerly promote the work product.

“It's not an overreach to let women make their own health care decisions,” Walz said. “It's not an overreach to make sure our children eat. It's not an overreach to deal with climate change. It's not an overreach to fix the roads.”

Republicans did make a late deal to deliver $2.6 billion in construction financing for water treatment plants, park upgrades, local road projects and more. They also leveraged $300 million more for distressed nursing homes.

More than two dozen House Republicans voted for the capital improvements bill, but not all were on board. Some said it was another example of excessive government spending in a year in which more money flowed to programs than to tax relief.

“Oinky oinky, piggy, piggy,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. “Boy, do politicians like to spend other people’s money.”

Many Minnesotans might remember the session for something else: Legal marijuana for adults 21 and over. Laws around possession and home cultivation shift this summer; dispensaries should open next year.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said while that certainly attracted plenty of attention, other items will have a greater impact.

A woman smiles as she stands in a state Capitol hallway
House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, called the 2023 legislative session "a disappointment."
Brian Bakst | MPR News

“The everyday average hardworking Minnesotan whose child care is expensive, whose housing is expensive, who really wants to send their kids to college, but they don't know if they'll be able to afford tuition — and those were the people who have always been front and center,” Hortman said. 

It’s too soon to know how voters will receive it all. There’s another session before the 2024 election, when only the House is up. Lawmakers gavel back in next February.

But it will be hard to match what happened this year. 

League of Minnesota Cities lobbyist Gary Carlson has been part of 40 sessions and retires after this one. He said the 2023 session was monumental by any measure.

“This year has been a tremendous output of legislative accomplishments for the Democratic Party. I know some of those have been controversial, but they clearly had a game plan when they came in to pass some major initiatives of the caucus,” Carlson said. “And they have virtually gotten all of those done.”