On May 22, with less than an hour to go before a deadline to finish work for the 2016 legislative session, the bonding bill landed on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, standing at the rostrum in front of the chamber, quickly readied the nearly $1 billion package of construction projects for a final vote, but Democrats in the minority weren’t happy. Several members picked up their microphones and shouted in protest, saying there wasn’t enough time to read the entire bill, much less make any changes to the proposal.
Then an odd thing happened: For those watching the chaos on the House chamber’s livestream video feed, the shouting abruptly stopped. Then it started back up, until suddenly voices were cut off again, some midsentence. Daudt, who is shown in the House video standing at the rostrum, pushes something off to his right on the desk several times.
It turns out Daudt was utilizing a new feature installed in the Minnesota House chambers ahead of the 2016 session: A “master mute” button.
Mutes all members’ microphones
The button allows the speaker of the House to mute at once 133 microphones set up for individual Minnesota legislators, which are activated when a microphone is picked up. Another mute button was installed on the desk of the chief clerk of the Minnesota House, a nonpartisan official elected by representatives. The clerk and speaker’s microphones are not muted when the button is pressed.
The change to the chamber, initiated by the chief clerk’s office and House Republicans last December, was made as the House chamber was undergoing renovations last winter and spring. The new function brings the technology in the Minnesota House in line with other chambers around the country, but it’s considered a controversial move by some in a time of heightened partisanship in St. Paul.
“I can’t imagine why any speaker would approve putting a mute button in there. To me, it creates temptation for shutting down the minority,” said DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, who previously served as speaker in the chamber. “I never felt the need to have something like that.”
House Republican spokeswoman Susan Closmore said the change was “institutional” and will improve sound quality in the chamber during things like the governor’s State of the State address, University of Minnesota regent elections, tours of the Capitol, student mock legislative sessions, and even regular legislative sessions. During those events, people regularly pick up the microphones and create sound issues across the system.
“Many chambers across the country have a default ‘off’ setting for all mics, with mics going live only when a member is recognized to speak,” Closmore said in a statement, adding that the microphones in the House chamber still remain in a default “on” setting with the option of muting microphones.
Added last winter
The mute option was added last winter and given its final tests in the first week of March, right before the 2016 legislative session began, according to emails obtained through a data practices request. The emails between the Department of Administration and legislators and staff discussed changes to the House and Senate chambers.
The Capitol is in the midst of a multiyear, full-scale restoration, and the addition of the button coincided with rewiring and updates to the House audio system, said Wayne Waslaski, who is overseeing the restoration for the Department of Administration. Waslaski said the cost of the new mute buttons was covered under the current Capitol construction budget.
The House is considered the more informal chamber in Minnesota, and legislators sometimes pick up their microphones, even when they’re not recognized. Several times last session, legislators picked up their microphones and played music into the sound system of the entire chamber, sometimes in the middle of a floor session.
A tool against the minority?
Debates in the Minnesota House can also get heated. In 2015, the House floor erupted into shouts on several occasions, including the final moments of session. That year, former Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, yelled on the floor that Daudt was “acting like a dictator” in a particularly heated moment. Daudt was moving to adjourn a floor session over the protests of the minority, who were asking to be recognized for a roll-call vote.
Thissen, who was unaware of the change to the House’s audio system, said there were several moments during the session where DFL member’s microphones seemed to go out while they were speaking. During session, he assumed the sound problems had something to do with ongoing construction in the Capitol. He said he’s worried the new button will be used to mute the minority when debates are heated in the House.
“I think it’s a big change. It may seem like a minor thing, but it gives the speaker the power to shut off debate in that form, when someone is in the middle of a sentence,” Thissen said. “I wouldn’t have approved it.”