Newly empowered Minnesota Democrats pledge to move swiftly

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota's Democratic leaders pledged Wednesday to use their new control of the state Legislature — and a $17.6 billion budget surplus — to improve the economic security of residents and to quickly enact protections for abortion rights.

“We truly are moving swiftly, more swiftly than I can remember in my 18 years of service, because that's what Minnesotans expect and deserve,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said at a news conference on the first day of bill introductions of the 2023 session.

The Democratic proposals include a plan for employer-funded paid family leave and sick time. Hortman said it would help remedy the state's workforce shortage. Minnesota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, and the lack of workers has hampered the ability of businesses to grow. The speaker said the bill will help attract people back into the workforce.

Child care costs are some of the biggest reasons people aren't coming back into the workforce, said new House Majority Leader Jamie Long, of Minneapolis. So Democrats plan to pass a $3,000 per-child tax credit for families with children age 5 and younger, with a cap of $7,500.

“That will make a real impact in people's pocketbooks and their ability to get to get to work,” Long said.

Democrats took control of the state Senate in the November elections, albeit with just a one-vote majority. They also preserved their six-vote majority in the House and kept the governor's office to win full control of state government for the first time in eight years. Hortman, who’s beginning her third term as speaker, said many Democratic priorities over the last four years were blocked by the “brick wall” of the Republican-led Senate, a barrier that's now gone.

Democratic leaders assigned the symbolically first bill number in both the House and Senate to a fast-track abortion rights bill that will get its first hearing Thursday. A 1995 Minnesota Supreme Court decision already protects abortion rights in the state. But Hortman said it's important to enshrine those rights in state statutes because the makeup of the state Supreme Court could change someday, just as the U.S. Supreme Court changed before it struck down the Roe v. Wade decision.

Democratic candidates heard from voters that climate change was another top priority, Long said. So, he said, lawmakers will revive a bill that passed the House last year that would obligate the state's utilities to reach 100% clean energy by 2040. Over 20 other states have set similar goals via legislation or executive orders, according to the Clean Energy States Alliance.

Another priority bill aims to boost Minnesota's already-high voter turnout by include allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister so they're ready to vote as soon as they turn 18. The bill also includes automatic voter registration when citizens obtain or renew driver's licenses, and restoring voting rights for felons when they get out of prison. Hortman said automatic registration has been “very successful” in other states including Washington and Virginia.

On public safety and criminal justice, the first bills would also give Attorney General Keith Ellison money to hire more lawyers to prosecute crimes in rural Minnesota — funding that Senate Republicans previously blocked. And Democrats will hold a news conference Thursday to detail their plans to legalize recreational marijuana, Hortman said.

“Minnesotans told us they want an economy that works for everybody, they want their rights protected, their freedoms expanded, and democracy defended,” said new Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, of Minneapolis.

Republican leaders, who risk being shut out of major decisions this session, called the Democratic plans “controversial and divisive.”

“Rather than getting to work on balancing the budget and giving the massive surplus back to the people, they are rushing through their own top priorities without bipartisan support,” Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, of East Grand Forks, and House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, of Cold Spring, said in a joint statement.