A DFL-backed effort to officially retire the Minnesota state flag in favor of a yet-to-be determined redesign was dealt a blow late Thursday night in the state Senate — after one Democrat broke ranks.
In an hours-long debate over $1.5 billion in new spending included in an omnibus state government bill, Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, joined with 33 Republicans to effectively stop a provision tucked inside HF1830 that would have automatically started the process of redesigning the Minnesota state flag.
Hoffman didn’t speak on the floor during the debate over the provision. Two of his DFL colleagues — Sens. Erin Murphy and Mary Kunesh — gave conflicting accounts of whether the provision would give sole and official authority to a commission to create and certify a new state seal and flag, or whether the commission would have to come before the legislature to seek approval of its newly-created designs.
Senate Democrats ultimately approved — on a party-line vote — the overall bill which would increase state government operations by about 40 percent over the next two years. But not before Republicans were able to garner the one vote they needed to amend the controversial provision in the bill that would have delegated sole authority to a newly-created commission to certify a new seal and flag for Minnesota by May 11, 2024 (recognized annually as Statehood Day).
The Senate voted 34-33 to accept a floor amendment Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, offered that changed the provision to effectively strip the new commission of authority it would have had to approve and certify a new state seal and flag design without additional legislative authorization.
“We have before us an amendment that is a compromise,” Drazkowski told his colleagues on the Senate floor, regarding the language modification of the proposed State Emblem Redesign Commission. “Without it we are approving a new flag that no one has ever seen. Democrats, the Republicans are asking you, the people of Minnesota are asking you, join us in a compromise that respects what you want to do in redesigning a new flag that also preserves the responsibility of the legislature, for the people that elected us and brought us here to make these decisions.”
The amended provision, now included in the Senate version of the omnibus state government bill, effectively renders the proposed State Emblems Redesign Commission to an advisory role. That differs from a provision approved by the House of Representatives on Tuesday that’s included in the House version of the same bill, which would give the commission sole authority to certify an official new state seal and flag. The two chambers will have to reconcile those differences (and others in the omnibus state government bill) in conference committee in the coming weeks.
According to the language in both the House and Senate provisions, the State Emblems Redesign Commission is proposed to consist of 13 voting members:
Secretary of State Steve Simon, three members at-large appointed by Gov. Tim Walz, five members appointed by African heritage, Asian, Latino and Native American ethnic councils, and four appointed members by the Minnesota Historical Society, State Capitol Architectural Board, Explore Minnesota and the Minnesota Arts Board.
The commission would also include two members from each the House and Senate, but those legislators would not have voting power on the commission. The commission would be tasked with submitting a redesign for the state seal and state flag before the end of 2023. And that final product would be officially certified as the new state seal and flag for Minnesota on May 11, 2024, which is recognized as Statehood Day. The Senate version of the bill now renders the commission’s role to advisory only.
Many DFL legislators and several activists have criticized the state seal and flag as being poorly designed and racially prejudiced toward Native Americans.
“We’re supposed to be proud of our state symbol,” Kunesh, an educator in New Brighton, who is of Native American heritage, told legislators earlier this session in a hearing on the legislation. “And it’s hard to be proud of a symbol that seems to say that our indigenous people are not wanted in their own state.”
But others, like Sen. Steve Green, R-Fosston, who told his colleagues on the Senate floor Thursday night his family history includes Native American heritage, said the DFL-sponsored legislation would take away the legislature’s ability to be a voice of the people on such an important matter.
“We are arguing over whether we want to change the flag,” Green said. “We can argue that, but we should be arguing that here, we shouldn’t be sending it somewhere else. We have a rich heritage all over this state and all over this country. We should be in charge of the final say, whatever that is; that’s our job.”
Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.