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How lawmakers cope with long hours in session

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State Capitol
Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Sept. 28, 2011
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Legislators at the Minnesota Capitol have worked marathon hours this weekend as they raced to finish work on the new two-year state budget before the mandated end of the session on Monday at midnight. 

Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth, who, at 42, is one of the younger members of the Senate, said the days have started to run together and everyone is chronically tired. People are testy, short-tempered, and far less cordial.    "I'm not sure that that is a recipe for really good decision making," he said.   

Legislators cope with the long hours in different ways. Reinert's method doesn't include caffeine. 

  "I don't drink coffee, so for me it's a lot of water. I think a lot of members do live on caffeine though. Or cat naps," he said. "People end up with air mattresses in their offices."   

Lucky legislators like Reinert have housing nearby so they can snatch a few minutes away from the Capitol. Reinert also tries to get in some kind of physical activity. On Saturday he was able to take a 3-mile walk. And he eats healthy.   

"I bring all my own stuff - greek yogurt, fruit, protein bars, that kind of stuff," Reinert said. "Especially these late night or overnight sessions -- eating every couple three hours is definitely helpful."  

There's at least one positive. Reinert said lawmakers are often over-scheduled earlier in the session and don't talk to colleagues they don't know. 

  "But at this point there are no committees, there's no anything... You're on the floor and if you have breaks you might end up in the retiring room chatting and sharing a meal with a member you've never really talked to before," he said. "Or six of you end up piling in to cars and going to Dixie's for dinner, which we did a couple nights ago."   

Reinert says they tell personal stories and build a little more of a relationship outside of politics. And they commiserate about the whole experience. Reinert said he's seen it all play out before in earlier budget years where sessions ended in the same way.  

"Maybe what's different is, I think, some in the public thought with Democrats in charge of everything there would be this bullet train of everybody in lockstep," he said. "And my response all session has been, 'You don't know Democrats very well.' We're not disciplined. We're not in lock step. We have diverse opinions all over the place."