Minnesota Democrats' historic legislative session
Voters gave Dems a trifecta, and they wasted no time using it to pass a breathtaking array of progressive legislation.
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By Lisa Needham
At a time when national Democrats are thwarted by divided government, Minnesota Democrats have shown that when Democrats hold the state legislature and governorship, they can really make an impact — and quickly.
Coming on the heels of a 2022 election cycle where Republicans lost control of the state Senate by a single seat, the 2023 Minnesota legislative session was a masterclass in what Democrats can do when they have a trifecta, however narrow or fleeting. With a six-vote majority in the House and the slimmest possible majority in the Senate, Democrats held firm, passing bill after bill and enacting a to-do list that will help a lot of people.
The state’s Democratic majority didn’t just succeed because they had a trifecta. It’s also because they set aside the urge to engage in bipartisanship with the bad actors of the Minnesota GOP, who thought Democrats’ one-vote majority was fragile and would require them to obtain bipartisan support to pass key legislation.
Minnesota Republicans regularly complained about not being allowed to influence or undermine Democratic goals and made absurd arguments that Dems were obliged to get GOP votes despite having the majority. Democrats didn’t succumb to this notion. Instead, they moved briskly through their proposed legislation and racked up progressive wins.
A rundown of everything Minnesota Dems accomplished
After abortion access was shattered in much of the country following the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Minnesota Democrats immediately got to work to strengthen access in the state. Indeed, by January 31, 2023, less than a month into the legislative session, Gov. Tim Walz had already signed a bill, the Protect Reproductive Options Act, which protects not just abortion but birth control, family planning, fertility treatments, and more.
Democrats didn’t stop there. The omnibus health and human services bill also repealed restrictions on abortion, such as a requirement that doctors read a set of anti-abortion propaganda talking points to patients and a 24-hour waiting period.
Similarly, as waves of anti-trans bills sweep other states, Minnesota Democrats fought back. Republicans proposed a raft of bills designed to harm transgender people, including criminalizing providing gender-affirming healthcare for minors, but all of those died in committees. In contrast, Democrats passed the trans refuge bill. That bill blocks Minnesota state courts and officials from complying with subpoenas, extraditions, or arrests from other states seeking to punish people who travel here for gender-affirming care.
In his State of the State speech, Walz said, “They want to put bullies in charge of your health care. We want to put you in charge of your health care and put bullies in their place.”
All across the nation, conservatives were predictably outraged, claiming the Minnesota trans refugee bill would strip custody from parents, with one group issuing a “travel advisory” warning anti-trans parents not to travel to the state.
There’s more. Starting in 2026, the newly-passed family and medical leave law gives Minnesotans up to 12 weeks off per year with partial pay after the birth of a child or to care for a sick family member. The law also covers up to 12 weeks for workers to get over their own major illnesses. However, employees will also see some expanded relief earlier, on January 1, 2024, when the earned sick and safe time law kicks in. That law requires that employees earn one hour of sick and safe time for every 30 hours worked, up to 48 hours per year. The law covers temporary and part-time workers as well. President Joe Biden had proposed a national sick leave plan, but that ran into the buzzsaw of the Senate.
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The state also became the fourth in the nation to enact universal school lunches, providing free breakfast and lunch to all K-12 students. Meanwhile, Republican state Sen. Steve Drazkowski declared he “ha[d] yet to meet a person in Minnesota that is hungry.”
That is, of course, wildly untrue. Minnesotans visited food shelves over 5 million times in 2022, a jump of nearly 2 million since 2021. Roughly one of every eleven children is food insecure and doesn’t have consistent access to nutritious food. Passing universal school lunches makes a real day-to-day difference in Minnesota's children's lives.
At the higher education level, the Democrats also passed a bill that makes college free for families that earn under $80,000 per year. For those students, there will be no tuition costs or associated fees at any of the state’s public colleges, universities, and tribal colleges. Republicans complained, with one confusingly insisting that this would increase student debt, but Democrats persevered, and now around 15,000 students will reap the law's benefits.
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They also tackled gun reform, passing two laws designed to reduce access to guns. One law expanded background checks to cover private transfers between individuals, not just at gun shows. The other is a red flag law, where guns could be temporarily removed from people who are an imminent danger to themselves or others. Conservative elected officials like state Sen. Justin Eichorn trotted out the same tired lines as always, threatening that county sheriffs will refuse to follow the red flag law and saying, “Today it’s your guns, tomorrow it’s your Zamboni or your gas stove or whatever.” When signing the bill, Walz — who had an A rating from the NRA when he was in Congress — refused to be baited into that argument and said he would not “allow extremists to define what responsible gun ownership looks like.”
Minnesota also became the 23rd state to legalize recreational marijuana, and the bill contained several other provisions to ensure social equity and safety. Misdemeanor marijuana convictions will be automatically expunged, and preferential license treatment will be given to people from lower income areas disproportionately impacted by marijuana criminalization and people who have past marijuana convictions. Minnesota also legalized the possession of drug paraphernalia, which allows people to have syringes and fentanyl test strips and allows community groups to distribute clean needles.
One Senate seat can make all the difference
To be fair, state Republicans did join the Democrats in voting for a bill that commits $240 million to removing and replacing lead water pipes. The move also unlocks millions of dollars of federal infrastructural funding to improve drinking water. Every state House member voted for the bill, and in the state Senate, only two Republicans refused to support it. Lead is extremely harmful to young children, as it can delay their development, create learning and behavioral issues, and damage kidneys and the nervous system. That bipartisan moment was pretty fleeting, though. Most of the big legislation passed by the state Democrats was passed on a party-line vote, including the omnibus health and human services bill, paid family and medical leave, gun safety, and gender-affirming care.
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What nearly all of these things have in common is that they improve the lives not just of individuals but of the families of the state — particularly children. With family and medical leave, parents can take time to care for their kids without going broke or losing their job. With free breakfasts and lunches, children can better thrive at school, setting them on a better path forward. With free tuition, more families will see their children go to college. With lead pipe abatement, more children will be safe from the harmful effects of early-life exposure to lead. With the trans refuge bill, families from other states can seek vital care for their children without the threat of criminal penalties in other states.
Minnesota progressives understand that, as the late Sen. Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.” By enacting popular progressive laws that help everyone, the impact of this 2023 session will be felt for decades to come.
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