Minnesota lawmakers embraced after months apart, posed for selfies on the first day of session and promised a quieter year than 2023, when Democrats in control passed sweeping policy changes and the largest two-year budget in state history.
But ceremony quickly turned into debate over policy issues, a preview of partisan conflicts ahead in a short, election-year legislative session.
"Summer vacation is over, we're back to work," DFL Speaker Melissa Hortman said on the House floor, moments after Republicans criticized Democrats for holding an out-of-session hearing on a bill that would allow terminally ill Minnesotans to use medication to end their lives.
"I can tell you that we haven't really heard from Minnesotans [about] this being their top priority," said House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring. "Minnesotans are more concerned about fixes that would be affording gas, knowing that the majority raised taxes on gas."
Policy issues such as gun control, abortion rights and whether to make Minnesota a sanctuary state for immigrants will be on the table. The bulk of the work this session will be crafting a package of construction projects in a bonding bill.
But lawmakers focused on more pressing matters on the first day. Democrats in the House planned to hold a hearing to fix a law passed last year prohibiting school resource officers from using prone restraints on students. The law has been criticized by state law enforcement groups over the past year and prompted some police departments to pull their officers out of schools.
Under a proposed fix, police who work in schools would need special training but they would be exempt from rules that regulate how and when educators may restrain students. The bill could be up for a vote on the House floor as early as next week.
Members also debated an immediate fix to an error in a sprawling $3 billion tax cut package passed last session that could cost taxpayers $352 million over the next two years if it's not corrected.
"When you look in the language, it's a few itty bitty words, but the cost is pretty significant," Department of Revenue Commissioner Paul Marquart told legislators Monday.
Senators were still grappling with a sudden change in leadership. Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, spoke of his "heavy heart" over seeing former Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, step down as Senate majority leader to focus on her treatment of a recurrence of her ovarian cancer. He praised her for having made the Senate more civil and productive.
"You could trust her word," Johnson said. "I hope that we can all hold her in our hearts and pray for her as she's recovering."
There were other moments of bipartisanship on day one. DFL Gov. Tim Walz delivered apple blondie bars with a maple glaze to members of the House and Senate before they gaveled into session it, calling it a "gesture of friendship to start the session off."
"The Legislature will work its will, we'll work with them," Walz said. "My biggest focus is these historic changes that make life better for Minnesotans need to continue to move forward."
Minnesota lawmakers said the agenda in 2024 will be less ambitious than last year, in part because it's not a budget year. The November forecast projected a $2.4 billion surplus this year that will turn to an imbalance of nearly the same size in the next two-year budget. Lawmakers will get an updated budget forecast at the end of February.
Tax hikes don't appear to be on the table this year after Democrats passed several increases in 2023. House Taxes Committee chairwoman Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, noted this year's policy focus and tight budget.
"I'm certainly focused on tax policy issues, there's a lot that we can do in that area, a lot of stuff outstanding. We'll see how things develop," Gomez said.
Given the constraints of the budget, Johnson said Republicans expect to have more leverage in discussions. Bonding bills that borrow money require Democrats to court votes from the minority. "We're going to have a bigger role going into this session," he said.
At a news conference, new Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, downplayed the notion that the Legislature was in caretaker mode after a busy 2023.
"I want to be really clear, crystal clear that we are here to do the work of the people of Minnesota," she said. "We passed a powerful agenda last session. We did. But that doesn't mean we've run out of great ideas."
Murphy said Minnesotans are struggling with the costs of child care, access to health care, paying rent and facing food insecurity. She said they could also add milk to the state's free lunches law passed last year.
Crowds advocating for gun control, ranked-choice voting and equal rights lined up outside the House and Senate chambers Monday, waving signs and chanting as lawmakers walked in. A crowd pushing for an equal rights amendment on the ballot in 2026 filled the rotunda carrying green and white "ERA Now" signs.
The amendment, which was one of the few issues that failed to make it across the finish line last year, is poised to pass this year after stakeholder groups agreed to add protections for abortion access to the language.
"We've seen what the courts can do, they can take away our rights," said House Majority Leader Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis. "We need protection right now in the Minnesota Constitution."
An amendment could be passed this year, but it won't appear on the ballot until 2026.
The 2024 election was more top of mind for some lawmakers. All 134 members of the state House are on the ballot this fall, giving Republicans a chance to put an end to DFL dominance at the Capitol.
"Minnesota voters, when they look forward to November, they have to know how their lives are more difficult under one-party control," said Demuth. "We are looking to bring balance back into the state Legislature by taking that majority."
Hortman downplayed the election, saying it won't be on her mind this session and the general public won't be checking in until later this summer.
"You cannot predict what the election will be about," she said. "When people come to St. Paul they should just focus in on doing good work and trying to find common ground."