Minnesota lawmakers passed the largest infrastructure package in state history Monday, capping a legislative session where Democrats pushed through some of the most monumental spending and policy changes in a generation.
They sent a $2.6 billion infrastructure package, with $1.5 billion of borrowing and nearly $1.1 billion in cash, to DFL Gov. Tim Walz for his signature. In the final hours of session, legislators signed off on the last piece of the infrastructure deal that directs $300 million to distressed nursing homes and approved a sweeping human services funding bill.
"The investment that we're making here — whether that's in local communities here in the metro area or in greater Minnesota — we are making a significant impact into everybody's lives," said infrastructure bill sponsor Rep. Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis. "Whether that's the road that we drive on, the drinking water that we have, or the community centers and the cultural centers that we have around the state."
While the infrastructure bills passed the two chambers with bipartisan support, Republicans continued to raise concerns about the scale of spending in Minnesota's next $72 billion two-year budget. A projected $17.5 billion surplus enabled Democrats to expand state programs and aid in many areas, though much of the money is one-time cash.
"As we congratulate and pat each other on the back for what is an unprecedented, explosive amount of government spending in our state, and now record borrowing, what does this mean for the future of Minnesota?" Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, asked. "What we are seeing right now in the state of Minnesota is an unprecedented migration of people, wealth and investment out of our state to other communities."
Leaders wrapped up the session a couple hours ahead of their midnight deadline. They left open the possibility of a special session later this year to give the University of Minnesota time to come up with a plan to preserve its health care facilities owned by Fairview, which is proposing to merge with South Dakota-based Sanford Health.
Late Monday, legislators passed a deal on a controversial measure that had aimed to regulate nurse staffing levels at hospitals. After opposition from Mayo Clinic and other hospitals, it was altered to instead focus on preventing violence against nurses and addressing burnout.
While they passed their final budget bills, other issues remained unfinished. A constitutional amendment asking voters to change the state Constitution to guarantee equal rights regardless of gender had cleared the Senate but not the House. And the Legislature did not legalize sports gambling.
Democrats were nonetheless in a celebratory mood Monday, with some House members wearing blue bracelets that said "70 strong," a nod to the total number of members in the House DFL caucus. Others tweeted a picture of a list of 30 priorities that members had tacked to a whiteboard in their private caucus room. All of the issues — gun-control measures, legalized marijuana, clean energy and abortion rights — had a check mark next to them.
"The everyday, average, hardworking Minnesotans 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, those were the people who have always been front and center and who we had an opportunity to do tremendous work for this session," said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.
Their primary focus was completing the budget, Hortman said, and that crowded out a few other things. She said she expects lawmakers will be able to fill up another whiteboard with ideas for next session.
Legislative Republicans agreed the 2023 session was transformational, but argued Minnesotans will be hit financially as they take stock of the new tax and fee increases tucked into various budget bills.
"Even the little bit of tax relief that is in some of the bills is not going to be recognized because of all of the expenses from our car tab fees, and taxes and delivery fees and increased costs all around," said House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring. "That is consequential and that will take forever to recover."
Republicans did welcome the nursing home funding bill, which the House and Senate passed unanimously Monday evening. Senate Republicans said in a news release that every nursing home in the state would receive about $1.1 million through a mix of direct grants, facility rate increases and a workforce incentive fund.
In a separate human services bill, nursing homes also would have access to $100 million in loans. Republicans had sought more nursing home funding throughout the session and struck a deal with Democrats on that and infrastructure on Saturday.
"We're glad Democrats finally joined us at the table to take care of those who care for our most vulnerable adults and seniors," Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said in a statement.
The makeup of this year's Legislature is the most diverse in state history, and lawmakers have stressed the importance of having elected officials reflect the population they represent.
Members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus on Monday touted achievements this session that range from the creation of social equity licenses under the cannabis bill to money for BIPOC-owned businesses to rebuild Twin Cities cultural corridors to a new ethnic studies curriculum for public schools, increased tenant protections and strict limits on no-knock search warrants.
"This session is laying the groundwork for true transformation in Minnesota," said Rep. Esther Agbaje, DFL-Minneapolis.