Democrats take control as Minnesota lawmakers return, plan fast start

Democrats gained full control of the Minnesota Legislature on Tuesday and planned to move quickly on bills related to abortion access, conversion therapy, and taxes.

Democrats have a lengthy agenda built up over nearly a decade of divided government, along with a $17.6 billion projected budget surplus to make their wish list a reality. DFL Gov. Tim Walz has Democratic legislative majorities for the first time since being elected in 2018.

House DFL leaders quickly scheduled a Thursday morning hearing on legislation guaranteeing abortion access in state law. Lawmakers see the move as a safeguard in case the Minnesota Supreme Court ever reverses a 1995 decision that found abortion was a protected right under the state constitution.

"Judging by the history of the Minnesota House and Senate, getting any bills to the governor in January is very successful, but we are going to get as many as we can as fast as we can," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, told reporters after winning a third term as speaker during a Tuesday vote.

Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic said the Senate DFL also supports guaranteeing abortion access but was noncommittal about how quickly a bill would move forward. Dziedzic won the post after Democrats regained the Senate in November following several years of Republican control.

Activists packed the Capitol on opening day, trying to get their favored issues front and center with lawmakers. Gun control supporters greeted legislators as they entered the House and Senate chambers. Other interest groups rallied in the Capitol rotunda. Walz and his wife, First Lady Gwen Walz, handed out chocolate pumpkin blondies to arriving lawmakers.

Walz and top lawmakers were optimistic that a tax conformity bill would be the first to reach the governor's desk, potentially by next week. An initial version of the bill posted online doesn't include rebate checks or a full exemption of Social Security income from state taxes, though Democrats have said those issues will be debated later this session.

The measure does include a provision excluding federal student loan forgiveness from state taxes. President Joe Biden's student loan relief plan is scheduled to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in February, with a decision due by June on whether it passes legal muster. The plan would wipe away up to $20,000 of student loan debt for tens of thousands of Minnesota borrowers, but current state law says such forgiveness is taxable.

The House Taxes committee has scheduled a Wednesday afternoon hearing on the legislation.

"It’s a bipartisan battle cry: 'Get your work done. Get a few things done, get your work done,'" Walz told reporters. "I think there’s a desire to come out of the chute. I think a tax conformity bill on my desk next week would be an amazing start."

Hortman also told reporters that the Legislature will vote in January to ban so-called conversion therapy, the practice of trying to change the sexual orientation of gay youth.

Another issue that lawmakers will confront in 2023 is whether to legalize recreational marijuana in Minnesota. House Democrats passed a bill in 2021 and plan to move ahead with similar legislation this year. But Dziedzic said Senate Democrats won't know if they have a pro-legalization majority until the bill moves through several committees.

"Minnesotans have told us they support it, but we’ll see how quickly that one moves because it’s going to require a lot of discussions in committees," Dziedzic said.

Supporters and opponents vowed to keep applying pressure to lawmakers. Legalization advocates held a news conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, while critics launched a scorecard designed to point out the public safety concerns about marijuana legislation.

Last fall, Republicans thought they would be in control of the Legislature this year. Instead, they failed to retake the House and lost the Senate, leaving them on the political sidelines.

"The things we’re looking at are the things we campaigned on and the DFL also did: tax relief for Minnesotans, public safety, ending fraud within our agencies and in our state," said House GOP Leader Lisa Demuth of Cold Spring.