Minnesota legislative session wraps up with historic progressive gains: Years of grassroots organizing paved the way, creating stark contrast with Republican-controlled states
Despite overall gains, capitalists killed two important bills for basic workers’ rights, and the legislature failed to advance police accountability
Saint Paul, MN – The 2023 Minnesota legislative session ended on May 22, and it’s one for the history books. A wide array of progressive measures that working class and oppressed peoples’ movements in Minnesota have demanded for years and even decades became law, as the Republicans howled from the sidelines but didn’t have the votes to stop it.
The stage was set for this when the Democrats bucked predictions of Republican gains in the November 2022 election, with Democratic Governor Tim Walz handily winning re-election, and the Democrats winning a slim majority in both the state House and Senate. This Democratic “trifecta” brought to an end to around a decade of divided government in Minnesota that bottled up any progressive policies and led to gridlock where little legislation of consequence passed. Add to the mix a $17 billion budget surplus, a new group of oppressed nationality legislators with histories in mass movements, the virtual disappearance of rural moderate Democrats due to political polarization, and pent up frustration with the extreme right wing turn of the federal courts and the Republican Party, and you have the ingredients for the most progressive legislative session in a generation.
This led to a legislative session unlike any in recent times.
The breadth of progressive policies that the state legislature passed this year surprised many observers. The last time the DFL had a trifecta of control over the governor’s office along with the state House and Senate a decade ago, they passed a small number of important progressive measures but overall chose caution and just maintained the status quo on most issues. This has matched the experience of Democrats in power at the federal level for our entire lifetimes; when they have won elections, the Democrats have not only failed to advance bold, new progressive policies — they've failed to even maintain the status quo of the gains won in the 1930s New Deal era and the 1960s freedom movement era as the Republicans have relentlessly attacked those gains.
The recent experience of a Democratic trifecta at the national level from 2020-2022 repeated this experience, with President Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress failing to pass transformational legislation to advance people’s rights and even failed to defend abortion rights while Republicans in the courts and in state governments continued to methodically strip away the gains of previous struggles and have gone on the attack to further erode the basic democratic rights of working class and oppressed peoples.
The fact that the Democrats only had a one-vote majority in the Minnesota Senate led many people to expect something similar to what we saw at the federal level over the previous two years, where two of the Democrats’ most conservative U.S. Senators – Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema – blocked serious progressive legislation, negating the Democratic majority.
But that didn’t happen this year in Minnesota. The Democrats came out swinging from the start of the legislative session, passing progressive legislation on a range of issues quickly and not letting up until the session ended in May.
That said, there are some notable things the legislature didn't do, and things that Governor Walz vetoed after threats of blackmail by major corporations, which clearly demonstrate the limits of what's possible in this system even with total Democratic control.
What was passed?
Given that the Democrats largely won the elections in Minnesota because of outrage about the overturning of Roe v. Wade nationally, they put a high priority on a range of bills to strengthen abortion rights in Minnesota. In the face of attacks on abortion rights in many Republican-controlled states, Minnesota went in the opposite direction and significantly expanded abortion rights.
While a state court ruling had previously protected abortion rights in Minnesota, the overturning of Roe v. Wade nationally made it clear that a court ruling is not strong enough protection for this basic right. So the legislature passed a law to put abortion rights into the Minnesota legal code as a “fundamental right”, making it harder for right wing judges to easily overturn it. They also overturned basically all the restrictions that had been placed on abortion over the years as part of the long-term Republican strategy to chip away at abortion rights bit-by-bit with things like waiting periods, extra unnecessary paperwork, etc.
They passed a law protecting people who come to Minnesota for an abortion from other states that might try to legally prosecute them because they’ve outlawed abortion. And finally, they cut all state funding to “crisis pregnancy centers,” which are misleading anti-abortion “fake clinics” littering the state. Many are religious institutions that try to talk vulnerable people out of seeking abortion as one of their health care options. Previously these centers received millions of dollars of state funding, but no more. The struggle to increase access to abortion continues, as even though it remains legal there are very few clinics that offer abortion services in the state.
Voting rights expansion
In the face of attacks on voting rights on the federal level with the effective end of the Voting Rights Act and attacks on voting rights in Republican-controlled states, this year’s Minnesota legislature passed several expansions of voting rights. One important one is restoring the vote to people convicted of felonies who are on felony probation or parole. This voting restriction has disproportionately impacted Black Minnesotans. This change restores the right to vote for around 50,000 Minnesotans. They also passed a law that will now automatically register eligible voters to vote, which is a significant expansion of voting access, and will automatically pre-register eligible 16 and 17-year-olds to vote. There will also now be a permanent absentee voter list, so people who want to vote by mail can automatically get a ballot sent to their home before each election.
Protecting trans and queer rights
In the face of attacks on transgender, gender non-conforming and non-binary people in Republican-controlled states, the Minnesota legislature passed a series of bills to protect trans people. One bill protects people traveling to Minnesota for gender-affirming care from legal attacks in other states, including prohibiting the governor from extraditing someone for receiving gender-affirming care in Minnesota. Another bill bans “conversion therapy” statewide, which is a discredited practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity to make them straight.
Drivers license for all and insurance for immigrants
The immigrant rights movement in Minnesota has fought to win back drivers license access for all regardless of immigration status since that right was taken away from undocumented residents in the anti-immigrant fervor after 9/11. After 20 years of struggle, this year the legislature quickly moved to pass the drivers license for all bill, and passed a clean version of the bill without special markings on the license that would expose people as being immigrants, like some previous versions of the bill would have done.
Another important measure passed that benefits immigrant communities is that now Minnesota’s immigrant residents will be eligible to enroll in MinnesotaCare, the state’s publicly-subsidized insurance program.
One of the biggest missing elements in the legislature’s otherwise progressive efforts has been around reigning in racist police violence with policies to increase police accountability. In the aftermath of the police murdering George Floyd, several organizations fighting for police accountability and families impacted by police violence proposed a series of new laws; they were almost entirely ignored. This year, one significant piece of legislation passed that addresses police brutality – new limits statewide on no-knock search warrants, like the kind that led to the Minneapolis police killing Amir Locke in January 2022. There are loopholes in the bill though that still allow no-knock warrants in some situations. But overall, the legislature failed to make significant strides toward reigning in racist police violence.
The legislature expanded MinnesotaCare to create a public option, an important step in the direction of health care for all.
The legislature also passed a statewide paid family and medical leave plan, expanding paid work leave to large numbers of workers who don’t currently have such benefits at their jobs. Eleven other states have similar programs. Additionally, the legislature passed a statewide sick leave program. Workers who don’t currently get sick leave at their jobs will now get an hour of sick leave per 30 hours of work.
After decades of underfunding of transportation infrastructure, legislators passed a nearly $9 billion transportation bill, including new taxes and fees that will raise significant amounts of dedicated funding for transportation infrastructure as well as funding for public transit and funding for the ever-elusive passenger train line from the Twin Cities to Duluth, which now seems like it will become a reality. The legislature decriminalized fare evasion for all Twin Cities transit agencies, an important move in both curtailing racist enforcement of such laws as well as potentially a step toward free public transportation.
The state legislature passed $1 billion in spending on housing, and created the first-ever tax dedicated to affordable housing. While more should have been allocated to public housing, there is $10 million to retrofit public high-rise housing with sprinklers; a few years ago, several people died in a fire in a Minneapolis public housing fire. A new state program was also created that’s similar to the federal Section 8 program that could help 5,000 low-income renters.
For higher education, the North Star Promise Program creates a free college education for students with a family income under $80,000, and increased funding for Minnesota’s tribal colleges.
The K-12 public education budget is $23.2 billion. This is a significant increase over previous years, coming after decades of underfunding of public education. Importantly, future funding will be tied to inflation increases to not fall behind inflation. The bill includes a permanent expansion of pre-kindergarten education to 12,360 seats statewide, funds to increase the size and diversity of the teaching workforce, nearly doubling funding for American Indian education, $65.9 million to pay paraprofessionals and special education instructors for their work time outside of the classroom in addition to their classroom time, funding for a new mandate that schools have menstrual products available, funding for creating new gender-neutral bathrooms, and much more.
The legislature also passed free school lunch statewide, starting next school year. This continues something that was implemented on a temporary basis at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but was set to end.
Child care assistance
The legislature passed a large increase in funding for the Child Care Assistance Program.
A new law set a statewide goal to have a carbon-free electric grid in Minnesota by 2040. While slower than climate activists want, it moves in the right direction in comparison to the reversals in Republican-controlled states. Hundreds of millions will also now be available for climate projects and rebates for electric vehicles, buses, bikes, air-source heat pumps, and more.
Late in the session, legislators intervened in the struggle in the East Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis over the future of the Roof Depot site. A years-long struggle came to a head this year as the largely indigenous and immigrant working-class neighborhood fought to stop the city of Minneapolis’s plan to demolish the Roof Depot site, releasing arsenic into the air from the polluted site, and then putting a public works site there that would bring more diesel traffic to the heavily polluted neighborhood. Instead the community wanted to create an urban farm on the site, but Minneapolis Mayor Frey and the majority of the city council pushed ahead with their own plan.
As the demolition of the site was looming, the state legislature budgeted money for the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute to purchase the site and brokered a deal that Mayor Frey agreed to accept for the community to take control of the site. This sealed a huge victory for the indigenous people and environmentalists who resisted the city’s plan for eight years.
New state flag
The legislature passed a measure that will likely result in a new Minnesota state flag to replace the current flag which is both aesthetically confusing as well as racist in portraying a Native American exiting the scene as a white farmer works the land. A commission will propose a new state flag design for the legislature to consider next year.
The CROWN Act was passed this session, which changes the MN Human Rights Act to protect against discrimination in employment, housing and education based on hairstyle, something that has been particularly used against Black people.
Unprecedented budget increase and new revenue
The biggest financial thing that happens in a legislative session is passing the state’s budget for the next two years. The budget they passed this year smashed the previous record, with a 40% increase in spending. This means a significant increase in spending on social programs that benefit working people, which have been starved of funds in recent decades as neo-liberal cuts to social programs have been the norm under both Republican and Democrat administrations. There was also a large increase to local government aid, and a massive $2.6 billion bonding package of infrastructure projects. This is the largest bonding bill ever passed in Minnesota; no bonding bill for infrastructure was passed at all in the previous two years due to divided government gridlock. The legislature passed $100 million in funding for high-speed internet infrastructure, which will help in many parts of the state with inadequate internet access.
One of the measures that got the most media attention was the legalization of recreational marijuana in Minnesota, which now becomes the 23rd state to do so. Decriminalization of simple possession and home growing of marijuana will go into effect in August. The bill also calls for expunging some low-level marijuana offenses from people’s criminal records; Black people in Minnesota have been arrested for marijuana possession at a much higher rate than white people.
Capitalists set limits
The fast pace and wide array of bills the legislature passed seemed to even catch many in the capitalist class off guard. But by the end of the legislative session, they regained their footing and stopped some important bills in their tracks. Under threats from large corporations, Governor Walz intervened to squash two bills that working class people and unions fought hard for. One was a bill supported by the nurses’ union, the Keep Nurses at the Bedside Act, which would have taken important measures to address the crisis of understaffing and overworking of nurses. This was set to pass until the Mayo Clinic, a hugely powerful corporation in Minnesota, sent a public letter to legislators and the governor threatening to move billions of dollars of future investments to other states if Minnesota passed this law. First the legislature tried to do a carveout for Mayo to exclude them from the bill, but then other hospital corporations got mad, and the whole bill fell apart.
Second was a bill that passed both the House and Senate and only needed the governor’s signature to pass. This bill would have created basic worker protections and a minimum wage for Uber and Lyft rideshare drivers, who are classified as “independent contractors,” and so most existing labor law, as inadequate as it is, doesn’t apply to them. The bill was pushed by the Minnesota Uber & Lyft Drivers Association (MULDA), representing the largely East African workers who are rideshare drivers.
After passing both houses of the legislature, Uber, learning from what Mayo Clinic did to tank the nursing bill, sent a threatening letter to the governor saying that if he signed it, Uber would end all operations in greater Minnesota and would only continue certain specialized services in the Twin Cities. The governor balked and issued the first veto of his time in office, leaving thousands of oppressed nationality workers still without a basic minimum wage or workers’ protections.
The killing of these two bills in particular show where the true power lies in a capitalist country. Even in a best case scenario of complete Democratic control in a state under the most ideal economic conditions of a massive budget surplus, the capitalist class can still override the will of the people and of the legislature and essentially veto bills they don’t like by issuing threats. This shows the need to not only fight to win what can be won under the current system, but to fight for a new system – socialism – where working class and oppressed people have the reins of power and can’t be bullied by large corporations into denying workers basic rights.
Angered but unbowed by the governor caving to capitalist threats, both the nurses’ union and MULDA have pledged to continue their struggle to pass these bills next year.
Increased polarization – two legal systems in one country
The results of this year’s legislative session in Minnesota paint a sharp contrast to the avalanche of reactionary laws passing in Republican-controlled states. This is a reflection of the growing political polarization in the U.S., and the consolidation of two very different legal systems in this country, with some states preserving and expanding democratic rights, and other states sharply attacking and curtailing them.
This situation of political polarization makes it possible to win some important advances for democratic rights in Democratic-controlled states if mass movements are well organized and prepared to place clear demands on the Democrats in power.
It also shows the need to strongly support movements and communities in Republican-controlled states that are under attack and fighting back and resisting the wave of reaction in their states. Winning more democratic rights in the states where it’s possible helps those fighting in other states through raising the bar of what’s possible, as well as offering sanctuary to people and communities in those states who come under increasing attack with the wave of reactionary laws.