See more of the story

The Minnesota Democrats in control at the Capitol will downshift in the 2024 legislative session starting Monday, meaning major policy changes and spending proposals won't fly through the chambers in succession as they did from the outset a year ago.

DFL leaders say they will focus on passing a bonding bill and tweaking the details of several major bills from last year, notably legal cannabis and the limits placed on the authority of school resource officers.

Leaders from both parties made clear they're cautious about new spending, willing to wait and, as Gov. Tim Walz said, "See where we land," as the sweeping policy changes from the 2023 session settle.

"Groups are going to get together and they are going to be asking for this, this and this," the DFL governor said last week. "I think this is going to be a session to say, 'look ... we enacted a lot of things, these are very valid points you're bringing up, this is probably not the year to do it.'"

Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, was more alarmed.

"We've spent all of our money in the state of Minnesota, all of it," Johnson said. "I mean, we've got some nominal stuff tucked away, but when you look at the [future], we're broke again."

Not much spending

The tone of the session will become clearer at the end of February when the state revenue forecast is released. The November forecast issued a warning: a $2.4 billion projected surplus turns into an imbalance of almost the same size in the next two-year budget.

Barring a sudden influx of revenue, the cautionary approach to new spending will continue.

"I don't foresee a need for significant spending in the '24 session because of the quantity of investments we made in '23," said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, who tempered expectations about the scope of the work given the financial constraints.

Everybody will be watching the clock and the calendar. All 134 House seats are on the ballot in November, with the potential for the GOP to regain control of the chamber and end DFL dominance. Republicans in the minority in both chambers are eager to remind Minnesotans that Democrats spent a $17.6 billion budget surplus last legislative session.

"I had someone say to me last fall, 'are we ever going to get our surplus back?' I said, 'No it's gone, they spent it all,' " said House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring. "As we pay attention to our communities and as we do our legislative work, we do have our eyes on November."

DFLers counter that they made investments in the state that won't truly pay off for years, including free school meals, a $1,750 nation-leading child tax credit and a paid family and medical leave program beginning in 2026.

"Minnesota's economy is thriving. Minnesotans are seeing more money back in their pockets. Schools are thriving," Walz said. "Their proposal was to give tax cuts for businesses and the wealthiest Minnesotans, that's where they wanted the money. Well, they didn't get that."

Policy changes on the table

While they won't spend much, lawmakers will discuss policy matters, including legalization of sports betting, whether to allow terminally ill Minnesotans to use medication to end their lives and if the state should adopt gun storage restrictions.

One of the first bills up will reconsider whether to allow school resource officers to use restraints on students. A ban adopted last year has been a hot issue, with Republicans demanding a repeal.

The Legislature will also weigh whether to put an equal rights constitutional amendment on the 2026 ballot, Hortman said. A version of the amendment passed the Senate but not the House in the final hours of 2023 because of concerns it didn't go far enough on abortion rights.

New language will include protections for abortion access and transgender rights.

"What's important from my perspective is to acknowledge the issue of abortion will be on the ballot because it's top of mind for Minnesotans when they think about the election," said Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy, who has an ERA sign outside her Senate office, adding, "We won't put an issue on the ballot unless we're confident it will pass."

Republicans also want to talk about that new state flag. Johnson said Minnesotans are emailing him to say they didn't get to choose the new design.

"I'm 100% with them. At least we should have a vote on accepting this new flag," Johnson said.

Across the street from the Minnesota State Capitol where the Legislature will convene on Monday, Republican House members put numbers in their State Office Building windows reflecting the $730 million cost of the building's renovation,...
Across the street from the Minnesota State Capitol where the Legislature will convene on Monday, Republican House members put numbers in their State Office Building windows reflecting the $730 million cost of the building's renovation,...

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Focus on infrastructure

The bulk of the work this session will be piecing together a package of construction projects across the state. Last session, lawmakers passed a historic $2.6 billion bonding proposal, but the state has capacity to bond for another $830 million this year. Walz has proposed a $982 million bonding bill.

Borrowing bills require a three-fifths majority in both chambers to pass, meaning the DFLers need GOP votes. Republicans are eager to have input. Johnson said he wants to focus on infrastructure projects for roads, bridges and clean water that benefit all.

Murphy listed similar priorities, saying, "It's our job to make sure the public's infrastructure is functioning well."

Republicans also point out that a $454 million project is already underway to renovate state offices across the street from the main Capitol building. Including interest, the project will cost $730 million over 20 years, nearly the size of the projected bonding bill this year, Demuth said.

"Some of the decisions that are being made here are out of touch with Minnesotans," she added.

Every session brings surprises and there was a big one already this year when Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, stepped down from her leadership post because of a recurrence of the cancer that had her working remotely through much of 2023.

On Tuesday, the caucus chose Murphy to succeed her. Murphy said Dziedzic plans to vote on the Senate floor or remotely at times. "She's going to be actively engaged," Murphy said.

That's critical because the DFL has just a 34-33 majority over the GOP. A tie vote means a bill fails.

"We left at the end of 2023 having participated in what felt like a pretty transformative moment for Minnesota," said Murphy.

Legislators continued working in the months after the session ended on issues from sports betting to housing, emergency medical services and a constitutional amendment. Then came Dziedzic's tough news.

"We're heading through a heck of a transition," Murphy said. "But the work that we've done in the interim is fundamental and we're ready to go."