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Our View: Snuff out power to mute

Did you know the speaker of the Minnesota House had the power, at the push of a button, to silence his lawmaking colleagues?

Neither did lawmakers — until Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt pressed his "chamber mute" button during what the Associated Press called "an acrimonious debate" during the 2016 legislative session. This was a year after Daudt had the button installed, giving him the power to turn off the microphones on all of his colleagues' desks all at once.

There's good news that incoming speaker of the House, Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, has vowed to do away with the mute button and the ability of one person to stifle debate and testimony.

"Every other speaker in the history of Minnesota has been able to govern the chamber with a gavel in his or her hand, and (Daudt installed) a mute button?" Hortman said in an interview with the Associated Press last week. "It's just a total violation of the culture of the Minnesota House of Representatives. But more fundamentally, it hits at the fundamental principles of democratic government."

Rather than quieting anyone, our elected representatives can encourage healthy, civil debate. Thoughtfully and respectfully discussed ideas and viewpoints improves the likelihood of the best ideas coming forward or being formulated. It improves the chances of finding solutions that best serve all Minnesotans.

"It's hard to find solutions when one side refuses to listen to the other, when the debate is muted and the microphones are turned off," the New Ulm, Minn., Journal editorialized this week. "The best way to avoid acrimonious debate in the House is for legislators to listen, and listen respectfully, to each other."

Duluth's legislative delegation cheered Hortman's pledge to remove the mute button.

"I applaud our leader in making this decision to improve the function of our legislative body," DFL Rep. Liz Olson, who represents western Duluth in St. Paul and who is the Majority Whip-elect for the House, said in a written statement in response to a request for comment from the News Tribune Opinion page. "As policymakers we know that Minnesotans care deeply about our state and want to see one another succeed. To strengthen our communities, we need to improve educational opportunities, make affordable health care a reality, and increase economic prosperity for all Minnesotans — we do that by working together, not by ignoring people with a different point of view."

"I support eliminating the mute button ... (and) applaud the efforts by Rep. Melissa Hortman to improve governance by increasing debate in the House chamber, increasing transparency by advocating for single-subject bills, and evaluating the official House rules to strengthen our democracy," DFL Rep. Jennifer Schultz of eastern Duluth said, also in a written response.

"Silencing any member of the Legislature is inconsistent with how a democratic society functions, and that is precisely what it was used for," said Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth. "All members have a right to voice their opinion and to represent their constituency, whether majority or minority, and it will be good to see the House return to respectful floor sessions."

Lawmakers can be trusted to offer testimony and to express viewpoints with civility, within the time limits and other rules that govern their deliberations, and with respect and order. A button to mute their comments and testimony should be unheard of in a democracy — is unheard of.

And Minnesotans can wonder just how serious Daudt was about the button. According to AP, he poked fun at it in a video produced for an annual fundraising roast. The video showed him with an oversized version of his button that he used to silence a reporter, a noisy coffee drinker, and others, even his rival in the Senate, DFLer Tom Bakk of Cook.

The 2019 legislative session begins Jan. 8. Without anyone muting anyone. And with spirited, civil, and productive debate and dialogue firmly in place, in accordance with the rules of decorum.