Paul Hicks knew every moment to midnight mattered.
So as legislators argued over a hastily drafted bonding and transportation agreement Sunday night, he left the retiring room by the Minnesota House chambers sometime after 11 p.m. It was the last day of session, just one hour before mandatory adjournment.
Once again, the fate of the session and a billion-dollar spending package would hang in the balance of the fleet-footed legislative staffer whose job it is to carry bills back and forth between the House and Senate chambers.
He bided his time on the House floor as lawmakers went back and forth over education, roads and bridges projects. He waited as House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, herded his party members into the noisy hallway for a hasty meeting to discuss last-minute details, and as Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, called out, “It’s time to roll!”
He felt increasingly nervous as the hour wore on and legislators tried to make last-minute amendments, shouted over one another (“There’s no democracy here!” one wailed) and DFLers in the GOP-controlled chamber initially withheld their votes on the borrowing package.
“I knew I’d have to run faster the closer we got to midnight,” he said. “I’m not as young as I used to be.”
In the Internet age, the Minnesota Legislature’s practice of hand-delivering bills on a crushing deadline might seem antiquated. But Hicks, 57, is proud to carry on a tradition that dates to 1858.
His official title: front office supervisor of the chief clerk’s office in the House. After working there for 33 years, he is accustomed to the late-night frenzy on the last day of a legislative session, where legislators have a constitutional deadline of midnight to pass bills. In past sessions, he delivered legislation to the Senate chambers a few minutes before the deadline. But that was in the old Capitol, when the Senate was a 30-second trip down the hall.
This year, the complex was undergoing massive renovations. So he would have to transport the bill to the Senate chambers across the street, which took about six minutes if he walked.
Six minutes is an eternity in the final moments of the session, when lawmakers routinely jam through billions of dollars in spending and borrowing just before the clock strikes 12. But he figured he could make it in three minutes — if he ran.
Hicks had already made a half-dozen deliveries of bills to the Senate that day, including the 599-page supplemental budget that the House passed only a few hours after its members received the document. Now he began considering his final, most important run. Should he go through the underground tunnels? No — that way was too roundabout, and he did not have time to wait for the elevator.
Hicks’ best route, he decided, was to dash through the north exit of the Capitol, down the stairs and outside. He wanted to give the Senate as much time as possible to deliberate before voting.
As the screen lighted up with the green dots of legislative ayes, 91-39, Hicks took his cue. It was 12 minutes to midnight. He picked up the bill and left the chamber for the retiring room behind it, hurrying over the steps and out the main doors on the north, past a guard house and across University Avenue. He blew through the Senate building and raced up the steps, panting and fatigued, into the corridor toward his destination.
Lobbyists, fretting over the fate of their bonding projects, lined the way like well-wishers at the end of a relay race.
“Here comes the bonding bill!” he heard them say. Some people took pictures. He kept his focus. A sergeant opened the door to the Senate chambers and he came in, with at least 10 minutes to spare.
But in a frantic final push, the proposal collapsed when the Senate tacked on a last-ditch amendment to fund the Southwest Light Rail Transit, which the House opposed.
Time was rapidly running out.
At 11:56 p.m., the House adjourned before it could consider the bill and the new amendment. By then, Hicks was back in the retiring room, watching the frenzy on TV.
“There was no time to bring the bill back over here,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, told a crowd of stunned reporters after the legislative heroics. “It takes six minutes to run the bill from across the street.”
Thissen said the events of the evening denigrated the institution of the Legislature.
“This could easily have been avoided had people started talking even three days earlier,” he said.
For Hicks, just a few more minutes could have made all the difference. He doesn’t think too much about the political ramifications of the measure’s failure, as Senate Democrats and House Republicans started blaming each other for the breakdown.
“I just deliver the bill,” he said.