5 observations on the Legislature’s first day

A return to normalcy — albeit with the DFL in control — after three long years of the pandemic

By: - January 3, 2023 8:15 pm

DFL Sen. Bobby Joe Champion presided over the Senate after being sworn in as the first Black Senate President. Photo by Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune pool.

Hundreds of Minnesotans were at the State Capitol on Tuesday to attend the first day of the Minnesota legislative session. 

Lawmakers were sworn in, advocacy groups held rallies, public tours commenced and lobbyists whispered in hallways for the state’s first relatively normal day of session since COVID-19 prompted much of the state’s legislative business to be conducted remotely. 

Tuesday’s heavy snow did little to deter Capitol-goers. Here are five observations from day one:

Family members, public fill Capitol hallways

Lawmakers took the oath of office Tuesday, many with their family members smiling down at them from the House and Senate galleries — including young children wearing suits and dresses. The Capitol was swimming with members of the public, legislative aides and lawmakers for the first time in years.

Minnesota Democrats now have control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office for the first time since 2014.

The 201 legislators in the House and Senate include a record number of women, people of color and LGBTQ lawmakers. 

Many are hopeful that long-stalled bills will at least see thorough consideration this year. Minnesota is sitting on a projected $17.6 billion budget surplus — and advocacy groups are pining for a piece of it. 

Interest groups sought lawmakers’ attention Tuesday with rallies, light-up signs and bright T-shirts. Groups pushing for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, marijuana legalization, gun control, and driver’s licenses for undocumented people were present at the Capitol on the session’s first day.

Champion sworn in as first person of color for Senate president

State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, was sworn in as the first person of color to serve as the chamber’s president. Champion will preside over Senate business and ensure senators follow parliamentary procedure. 

Champion took his senate president seat to a standing ovation from his fellow senators. Champion, whose family cheered and watched his swearing in from the Senate gallery, is an attorney who previously served as an assistant attorney general. 

“I am humbled by the support,” Champion said Tuesday. “We need to engage in robust discussion to make sure that (the public’s) voices are here in this space.” 

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, nominated Champion for the position and noted the historic nature of the nomination.

“Groundbreakers become icons, inspiring others in their community to seek similar success,” Latz said.

Also taking the helm, new Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis. 

Driver’s licenses for all 

Members of the public piled into the Capitol’s press conference room to show support for allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented Minnesotans.

Minnesotans are currently required to provide proof of residence to obtain a driver’s license, which deters immigrants, according to advocates. Gov. Tim Walz also attended the press conference and said lawmakers should pass it to help the state’s economy. 

“Our employers need workers. We know that this community works,” Walz said. “Why would we make it more difficult for them to get there safely? Why would we hold back our economy?” he asked. 

First-term state Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis, is spearheading legislation in the Senate. She told the Reformer she was confident the bill would pass despite the Democrat’s slim one-person Senate majority.

Minnesota didn’t require proof of residency for a driver’s license until 2003 when Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty enacted the residency requirement.

Finally, about that press conference room: It’s hot and stuffy when filled with people. 

Lawmakers appear poised to introduce social issues legislation despite budget year

Gov. Tim Walz on Jan. 24 will propose his biennium budget. Legislators are likely to deviate from Walz’s plan, but lawmakers often use the governor’s budget as a starting point.

The Legislature will go on to enact tax and spending packages that will result in a balanced budget. This process typically takes the majority of the session’s 120 days. 

Democratic legislative leaders on Wednesday are expected to announce their priorities this session. 

One thing is clear: Even though it’s a budget year, many lawmakers will prioritize social issues. 

Issues like marijuana legalization, gun control and codifying abortion access into state law are receiving a lotta buzz. 

State legislators will push to ratify Equal Rights Amendment

Minnesota lawmakers will propose a joint resolution to the U.S. Congress urging them to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

Advocates have been pushing for 50 years to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment guarantees equal rights for all women.

At least 38 states needed to ratify the ERA by the deadline in 1982 for it to become an amendment, but it was three states short. Minnesota ratified the ERA in 1973, and now state lawmakers want to send a resolution to Congress urging them to ratify the ERA, arguing that the deadline was arbitrary. 

Attorney General Keith Ellison spoke at a rally Tuesday and said it was far past time to enact the Equal Rights Amendment and initiated pro-ERA chants.

Lawmakers will also introduce legislation codifying equal rights for women in the Minnesota Constitution, which would require the approval of Minnesota voters in 2024.

Reformer intern Grace Deng contributed to this report.

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues. For two years she was also a corps member with Report for America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms and news deserts. She lives in St. Paul and likes to knit and watch documentaries in her free time.

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