A dozen questions for Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman

“We did exactly what Minnesotans asked us to do.”

By: - May 30, 2023 8:00 am

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, takes questions from the media on the opening day of the 2023 session. Photo by Andrew VonBank/House Information Services.

Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, was first elected to the Legislature in 2004. She’s served as the DFL leader since 2017 and was elevated to speaker after the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party took the majority in 2018, but she helped preside over gridlocked, divided government until this year. 

Now in her 10th term, she helped pass one of the most influential state budgets in memory.

The Reformer sat down with Hortman the day after the 2023 session ended and asked her to reflect on the DFL’s record this year. She betrayed no doubts about the most transformative legislative session in memory and expressed confidence in Minnesota’s future. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are you most proud of accomplishing this session?

I think the investments in early childhood education and paid family medical leave — those are probably the things I’ve wanted to do the longest. In 2013 and 2014, we funded all day, every day kindergarten, and then recently working with Republicans and a divided government, we funded some slots of voluntary pre-K, but they just kept expiring. What we finally did this time is we made the 4,000 slots permanent and then on top of that there will be 5,200 spots.

So we just increased the availability to all children under the age of five — prioritizing zero to three — but we put a ton of money into it. That education benefits them for the rest of their lives. That’s the thing I’m probably the happiest about.

How will we know that all the money we are spending after this year — especially in education — is working?

The Minnesota Miracle didn’t all happen overnight. In 1973, they decided to create the fiscal disparities account. They spread property tax wealth from the haves to the have-nots. For those policies to get us from not-great education state to the top of the heap was probably about 15 years. Over time, this increased investment we’ve made will pay dividends. You won’t open the paper tomorrow and be like, “Oh, wow! Test scores are up 30 points,” but it will be over time.

Will it take 15 years to see results this time?

A lot of it you’ll see right away, because if you’re a parent of a three-year-old, suddenly you have access to much more affordable child care and great early learning opportunities for your kid that you didn’t have last year. I think for families, where they will see it first is the child tax credit. With the free college tuition program for families making $80,000 or less, and then also the tuition freezes, people should feel a difference in their pocketbook within a year and a half or two.

How do you ensure Minnesotans that this is a good investment? How do you build the public’s confidence in the $72 billion budget? 

We did exactly what Minnesotans asked us to do. Our intensive conversations with Minnesotans on the campaign trail about what they wanted, and there were three things always there. Invest in education — everyone thinks that Minnesota is a great state to get an education for kids. Affordable and accessible health care. No matter who you talk to, there’s people who want more affordable prescription drugs. And then an economy that works for everyone. Things that fall in that category include paid family and medical leave.

But what was hot this year — in light of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade — people were shocked by that and wanted us to take action to protect that right to reproductive freedom. 

But what I didn’t quite expect or foresee that was also really hot was protecting democracy. People were really concerned after the kind of foreign interference in the 2016 election and the insurrection of 2021. Those were the things that Minnesotans wanted us to do.

Do you regret anything from this session?

No. We reached out to Republicans throughout. They did not always take us up on the invitation. By and large, it seemed that the caucus had made a decision that they worked very hard to not have members vote with us. They did not want us to have bipartisan votes up on the board. Nevertheless, we had quite a few.

What were you most nervous about and what was your hardest moment of the session?

I didn’t want to go late. I did not want to be a trifecta that didn’t finish on time, so that was probably the most stress that I had. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we had a one-day special session for the health and human services bill and for the bonding bill.

Republicans are saying people with capital are fleeing the state. What do you think of that argument?

People don’t move here for the snow, but I think people will be moving here for reproductive freedom. I think you’ll be seeing in those states where they have badly restricted reproductive freedom, they’ll be losing OB/GYNs. People will move here because they can get all the kinds of health care that they need. 

People move here because we’ve made substantial investments in housing and child care. 

And if you’re a construction worker anywhere in the country, you should know the welcome mat in Minnesota is rolled out to you. We’ve just funded enough construction projects to last the next five years. There’s going to be huge work in terms of upgrading buildings at the University of Minnesota, other campuses and wastewater treatment facilities.

But 3M and Medtronic, those engineers and those professional managers, the amount of wealth —

They don’t want to raise their kids in states where the books are banned in the school. They don’t want to raise their kids in a place where their daughter needs fertility treatment that she can’t get. I just think that Minnesota is going to do just fine keeping our highly educated workforce. 

The Baby Boomers are retiring, and they are going south. But that’s happening as a result of geography and demographics, not as a result of tax policy. I think there’s a lot of economic opportunities that come from our positive social climate.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park was surrounded by her DFL colleagues at Gov. Tim Walz’s ceremonial budget bill signing on Wednesday May 24, 2023. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer.

How should residents in the seven-county metro area think about their sales tax increasing even when there was a $17.5 billion budget surplus?

They’ll be seeing far more in terms of tax cuts. We really beefed up the property tax refund program, which benefits both homeowners and renters. 

Also, people who are lower income who have children will see really huge rebate checks. From the increased investment in transit and roads, they’ll see better road conditions. 

Republicans, however, call the tax bill a wealth redistribution bill.

This is part of being in a society. We’re all paying into a system, and part of being in a system with progressive taxation is making sure people who can afford to pay more do pay more. But the way that our system is currently set up, the wealthiest pay a lower portion of their total income in taxes than middle class people do. What we’re trying to do is have it be less of a burden on middle class people, and we’re okay if the burden on upper income people gets closer with what the rest of us pay in terms of a percent of our income.

What are your priorities for next session?

I haven’t really started to think about next year yet. We came in hot off the campaign and ready to rock and roll. We knew what we wanted to do this session, and we did it all. In terms of what I want to do next session — I haven’t had a chance to take a break.

What didn’t get done this session? 

Well there’s two things that were pretty teed up but didn’t get completed this year. 

The Equal Rights Amendment. We were surprised when the Senate sent it over. We had not talked about that. We didn’t think it was ready yet. Our caucus didn’t have time to work through it. 

And then sports betting was progressing in both chambers, but it just didn’t make it all the way to the finish line. It wasn’t as important — it’s a recreational thing. We know Minnesotans want to be able to legally engage in sports betting, but it was definitely not a top priority.

Those two things were left undone, but I’m sure we’ll finish them next year.

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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.