Minnesota Democratic leaders gathered the Friday after they won control of state government and jotted down a list of priorities they had watched languish for a decade under divided government.
In a five-month span, they have crossed almost everything off the list.
Wielding a massive surplus, Democrats are set to approve the largest budget in state history by far, pouring billions more into classrooms, construction projects and new government programs while also raising some taxes.
"When the dust settles on this, there's little doubt that this is probably the most productive session in Minnesota history," Gov. Tim Walz said. "It's also the most supportive of middle class and working people that we've ever seen."
The flood of progressive policies and new spending left some groups scrambling to keep up. As the Legislature races toward its Monday deadline to adjourn, Republicans in the minority said they have been almost completely cut out of the decision-making process.
"What you're seeing right now is a very one-sided, Democrat-controlled, Democrat-led agenda without any unity across the state for bipartisan work," said Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks. "That's been the saddest part."
Lawmakers scrambled in the session's final days to put the finishing touches on a $72 billion, two-year budget. The spending is a roughly 40% increase from the current budget of about $52 billion, although much of it is one-time spending, including grants to businesses and housing rehabilitation.
Democrats approved a $2.2 billion boost for schools statewide. They also agreed to spending increases of more than $1 billion in other areas, such as human services, the environment and natural resources and housing. And legislators were moving forward with $2.6 billion for infrastructure projects.
House and Senate Democrats and the governor spent the session trying to ensure Minnesotans, "no matter where they live, what they do for a living or what they look like, can succeed in this state," Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, said before votes on a plan to ensure all state residents can earn sick time.
"Our economy is tilted against working families." she said. "And you will see this in so many of our bills in the next days, that we're doing incredible work to level the playing field."
Racing toward Monday
While much of the new spending is a temporary boost tapping the $17.5 billion projected surplus, legislators are also increasing taxes and fees to pay for new programs and transportation needs.
A $3 billion tax cut plan that includes one-time rebates and a new tax credit for low-income families also raises $1 billion over the next two years through new taxes on high-income earners and having the state conform to a federal tax on multinational corporations. The housing bill raises sales taxes in the metro by 0.25% to fund rent vouchers and other housing aid. And a transportation package will raise the gas tax by indexing it to inflation and create a 50-cent fee on deliveries of more than $100.
"Minnesotans are furious," said Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater. "They are so angry that, with a $17.5 billion surplus, they're going to raise taxes?"
A breakneck pace of work set at the start of session only intensified in its final days. Legislators shuffled in and out of closed-door meetings and debated budget bills into the early hours of the morning. Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said she looked at the tired faces of staffers during a recent all-night debate and worried about their ability to drive home safely.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park — calling herself "sleep deprived" and "hungry" — accused Republicans of "dropping the plow" to prolong votes and make it difficult to finish the session on time. Republicans pushed back, saying it's the majority's job to "manage the clock." By Saturday, the two sides struck a deal for "reasonable timeframes" in the debates remaining.
Intraparty fights among Democrats also threatened their ability to finish on time. A group of DFL members made a late-session push to raise wages and add protections for Uber and Lyft drivers, prompting concerns that they could hold up budget bills. Democrats also scrambled to rework a proposal to regulate hospital nurse staffing levels after Mayo Clinic threatened to pull billion-dollar investments in the state if the bill passed.
The Minnesota Nurses Union parked an empty hospital bed outside of Walz's office and staged a sit-in for more than a week, blaming the governor for a decision to exclude all Mayo hospitals from the staffing bill. The union planned to stay there until legislators passed the bill.
Divided on legacy
Businesses said Democrats flooded the zone with so many bills that it was challenging to keep up with all the proposed changes. The majority lawmakers are moving Minnesota in a "troubling direction" with new mandates and regulations, while growing government by hundreds of employees, said Doug Loon, president and CEO of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
"Policies passed in one short legislative session can greatly undermine Minnesotans' long-term economic legacy," Loon said. "There's a lot of anxiety around the national economy and the global economy. Some of the things they are doing will exacerbate that concern."
Democrats packed an extraordinary number of new policies and programs into one session, lawmakers on both sides agreed. But they disagreed on whether that's a good thing.
"We heard voters tell us they were tired of gridlock, and we've continued to show throughout the session that we came here ready to work on day one," Dziedzic said. "We're proving to Minnesotans that we heard them and are getting things done."
Yet Sen. Michael Kreun, R-Blaine, said he has legal and constitutional concerns with the bills Democrats have "rushed through."
"There's going to be an avalanche of litigation after these bills that we're passing in this legislative session go into effect. And there's going to be some potentially serious consequences to our state," Kruen said during a debate on paid leave, a program that will add about 400 state employees.
Hortman, who has served as House speaker for the past five years, pushed back on the idea that proposals were rushed through the process. She has watched many of the bills the Democrats have passed stop just shy of passage under divided government.
Citing tax credits for low-income families, new funding for education and child care, she said this session will be "transformational" for families. Hortman compared this year's work by the Democrats to the DFL trifecta five decades ago that enacted the "Minnesota Miracle," which overhauled state finances to help schools and local governments. She said she grew up bragging about work Democrats did in 1973.
"For the next 50 years," Hortman said, "I hope people will benefit from and be able to brag about the benefits of this session."