Minnesota DFL manages expectations as Capitol power raises stakes

When Minnesota Democrats won full control of the state Capitol this month - surprising even DFL lawmakers - the floodgates opened to a list of progressive priorities that stood no chance in a divided Legislature over the past four years.

Democratic leaders are promising productivity during the session that starts in January while managing expectations about what they'll get done. The DFL is walking a tightrope, holding a 70-64 majority in the House and a 34-33 edge in the Senate.

"There are a lot of incredible things we'll be able to do. We won't be able to do everything that everybody wants to do," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said in an interview.

Lawmakers' first priority in 2023 is finalizing a state budget. Next week, they'll get an estimate from state economists about the size of the budget surplus, which is likely to be several billion dollars. While some of that is already in the bank, much of the surplus relies on a projection about future economic conditions that are increasingly uncertain as the U.S. economy edges toward a recession.

Still, the large surplus makes the situation different than 2013, the last time Democrats had full control over budget negotiations. That year, they faced a deficit and responded by raising income taxes on high earners and a tax on cigarettes.

For the past four years, Minnesota had one of the country's only divided legislatures. Democrats controlled the House, while Republicans held the Senate until now. In an interview, incoming Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic gave more cautious answers about where her members stand.

"We have a slim majority, so we're going to have to have open and honest conversations among ourselves," said Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis.

For example, Hortman said she expected that House Democrats will pass a bill legalizing recreational marijuana next year, as they previously did in 2021. 

Dziedzic declined to say what her caucus would do, pledging only to have "conversations" about the marijuana issue and numerous others when asked.

Despite the slim majorities, Democrats sense an opportunity. Both parties were frustrated by stalemates over the past four years.

DFL priorities include more school funding, climate initiatives, housing aid, putting abortion rights into state law, gun control measures, and paid family leave.

The last trifecta

The small majorities mean Democrats will have to narrow their wish list to keep all of their members in alignment, said state Sen. Tom Bakk, who was majority leader during the last DFL trifecta and is retiring from the Senate next month.

"Some of the progressives will be a little disappointed," Bakk, now an independent, said in an interview. "The agenda will be smaller than I think people probably hope it's going to be, because holding 34 (senators) together is pretty tough."

Bakk recalled how it took a full year of negotiations before Democrats raised the statewide minimum wage in 2014. Despite a bigger 39-28 majority in the Senate, the DFL initially lacked the votes, Bakk said.

"With 39 (members), doing something I think everybody thought we should do, it was still hard. I can only imagine with 34," he said.

In the Senate, where Democrats will be unable to lose a single vote, individual lawmakers hold more power over the process.

The scenario played out in Congress over the past two years. The Senate was evenly divided, 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting tiebreaking votes. That gave U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia significant power, and he singlehandedly held up much of Democrats' agenda, forcing changes before pledging his decisive vote.

Surplus spending

In the Minnesota Legislature, the budget surplus will be helpful - but it will also have drawbacks, said Jeff Hayden, a former state senator who's now a lobbyist.

"You're going to have a lot of groups, special interests and otherwise, who say, 'We helped you get elected. Now you owe us to be able to get what it is we want done,'" Hayden said. "That's what we felt a lot of when we had the trifecta before."

Leaders need to gain the trust of their entire caucuses, which include members of varying political philosophies, backgrounds, and styles. Members need to understand how they stand to gain from staying in the majority for many years, even if they don't get what they want on every issue, Hayden said.

As Democrats learned in 2014, success in one election isn't guaranteed to last into the next one. Republicans took back the House that year, ushering in an era of divided government.

Republicans will be waiting for DFL missteps this time around.

"We'll see how they do, but I suspect they're going to continue to advocate for the ideas they have in the past," said David Hann, who was the Senate Republican leader during the last trifecta and is now the Minnesota GOP chairman. "Those things are going to prove not very popular when we get to the next election."

Guarantee of no special session?

In recent years, Minnesota lawmakers have required special sessions to pass their budget bills. The last time a budget-related special session wasn't needed: 2013, when there was single-party control.

FOX 9 asked Hortman and Dziedzic if they would guarantee that the Legislature would get the next budget done without a special session.

"That's the goal. That's the plan," Dziedzic said.

"I believe we will. But I think it's really important in politics to under-promise and over-deliver," Hortman said. "I think people should be clear that, just because we have Democratic control, doesn't mean there isn't a lot to still disagree about."