Amid cell phones, jokes, attention spans shrink

Lax behavior in the House draws criticism from some and is blamed on frustration and tension from a long session.

Emily Johns

The days are getting warmer and the pressure is rising even higher inside the chamber of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

With demands to balance the state budget, pass controversial bills and avoid going into special session, tensions have been running high.

As the House began its session at 1 p.m. Thursday, however, fewer than half the legislators were in the room.

“When you work 18 to 20 hours a day, it wears on you,” said House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon.

The representatives present checked their e-mail and joked among themselves. In the past, representatives have been seen playing solitaire on their state-issued laptops.

Several legislators talked on their cell phones and lounged in their seats with their backs to Sviggum.

A woman in the gallery turned to her young daughter and said, “this is chaos.”

Representatives’ attention spans have been waning, a sign of the growing frustration and boredom in the Legislature.

“You’ve got to have perseverance,” Sviggum said. “When decisions are tougher, you probably raise your emotions.”

Sviggum said legislators always begin to grow tired and frustrated at the end of the session.

With increased budget pressure this year, Sviggum said, people are more stressed than usual.

“The days have become long,” said Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Robbinsdale. “It’s the kind of thing you come to expect at this time of year.”

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, criticized the House at an Ethics Committee meeting April 24.

“We have problems with discipline on the House floor,” Erickson said. “When I was elected to this body, I was appalled and continue to be appalled at the behavior on the House floor.”

Erickson said when the House met as a group, members were not paying attention and were gossiping and behaving disrespectfully.

“We are undisciplined as a House, and that is what we should be concerned about,” she said.

Carlson, who serves on the House Higher Education Finance Committee, said he is frustrated with the way the session has gone, especially the budget cuts the higher education committee was forced to make.

“(Students) are paying more for less. I would have liked to see a different outcome on the House side of things,” Carlson said.

Despite the long days and budget frustrations, legislators said they will try to avoid a special session at all costs.

“We cannot afford to go to special session,” Sviggum said.

He said he believes Minnesotans will not have any tolerance for their legislators not getting the job done while Americans are at war and the economy is in trouble.

Sviggum said he also feels Senate Democrats probably do not want to cause a special session in order to promote more spending and taxes.

“I’d like to see different outcomes as far as the budget is concerned,” Carlson said. “It’ll be a very difficult couple of weeks.”

Emily Johns covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]