Since before the days of cell phones, tweets and text messages, there've been telephones in a few desk drawers on the state Senate floor. They've been there to permit calls internal to the Senate -- for a secretary in another building to convey a message to a senator, or for the majority leader to quietly ask the presiding officer about the number of amendments remaining at the desk.
The occasional enterprising journalist could acquire the number of a drawer phone, but would use it very sparingly, to avoid being upbraided for abusing the privilege.
Such reticence was not exhibited Tuesday as the session's major bonding bill was debated. Drawer phones started ringing with constituent calls patched through the Minnesota Republican Party to their DFL senators, urging them to vote against the bill while the debate was in progress. It was a first, and brought a mild rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller. He asked that the numbers of drawer phones not be released to people outside the Senate's employ.
The rebuke was sharply rebutted by state GOP chair Tony Sutton and deputy chair (and Senate Republican staffer) Michael Brodkorb. They accused Pogemiller of arrogance, and argued that since the telephones in question were bought and paid for by the people of Minnesota, the people had the right to use them.
These indeed are public phones. They've been confined to internal Senate purposes merely by protocol -- a bit of etiquette, convention and convenience that had prevailed for decades to facilitate the chamber's orderly operation. The protocol of a formal old institution evidently cannot stand against the onslaught of modern partisan politics. Here's a prediction: the desk phones will be removed; tweets and text messages will take their place, and another bit of the tradition of mutual respect and trust that once bound members of the Minnesota Senate will be lost. Perhaps it's gone already.