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Janell Cole, Published May 05 2009

ND Legislature wraps up session early this morning

BISMARCK — The Legislature hop-scotched its way through its last bills Monday, and finished their longest session in history, 79 days, early this morning.

As the evening wore into late night, it wasn’t known whether they would finish before Monday was out, because the tobacco control measure voters approved in November was still up in the air. Debates also continued on whether to plump up a package for the state employees.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, apologized to his caucus about 8:30 p.m. after meeting with them to explain he had a plan to resolve the tobacco measure stalemate but expected it would drag the session into its 80th day, Tuesday.

That didn’t happen. The House accepted Stenehjem’s amendment at about 11:45 p.m. after House Majority Leader Al Carlson met with his caucus and implored them to give up the fight to block the tobacco funding.

The House adjourned sine die 12:09 a.m. Tuesday, and the Senate followed at 12:21 a.m.

Because a legislative day begins at 7 a.m. and doesn’t end until 6:59 a.m. the following day, the session will go down as 79 days even though it extended past midnight.

Stenehjem’s plan was meant to stave off the possibility of a lawsuit that the tobacco measure supporters were threatening should the Legislature leave town without appropriating money as the voters’ decision had required.

Meanwhile, 140 legislators spent the day packing up their belongings, turning in their desk keys, playing computer solitaire and otherwise killing time waiting for the next bill to be ready, a typical process that drags on because the Legislature’s staff has to prepare last-minute changes that committees made before the bills can be voted on in chambers.

The 141st lawmaker, Sen. Tom Fiebiger, D-Fargo, was absent Monday.

Lawmakers had 20 bills left to act on when they started up at 8 a.m. Monday. Both chambers clipped along at first, passing funding bills for the adjutant general, the Agriculture Department, the State Fair, the Public Service Commission, the Human Services Department and money for hospitals and clinics in the state to convert their records to digital form.

One was the state Water Commission budget, which contains the Legislature’s commitment to spend $75 million in state funds for a Fargo flood control project.

The House hiccupped early in the day when it killed the next two years of funding for the attorney general because they didn’t want to give him a raise of almost 50 percent two years from now. House members complained that if they were to send the bill back to talks with senators, it would become even worse.

“Their version is many millions of dollars and many more FTEs (full time employees),” said Rep. Blaire Thoreson, R-Fargo.

“We can’t just sit on it, we have to pass it,” House Majority Leader Al Carlson told Republican House member at an evening caucus.

The Legislature has no choice but to pass funding for offices that are in the constitution, such as the attorney general and other elected officials.

Rep. Curt Hofstad, R-Devils Lake, asked Carlson if lawmakers could pass the bill and then rescind the raise during the 2011 session. Others said that would not be a good idea.

The attorney general’s bill was revived and passed at midnight.

Meanwhile, Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, and other senators reluctantly approved the adjutant general’s budget without money for disaster coordinators, but said the House wouldn’t approve it.

“Somebody pounded on the table” and wouldn’t agree, he said.

The result is a program that won’t have money to operate unless or until there is a disaster, Wardner said.

Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, also was unhappy with the bill saying it was like new parents buying diapers and a crib while on their way to the hospital with the mother already in labor.

Most of that was all but forgotten after midnight when Senate and House leaders thanked their members for all their work and adjourned until the 2011 session.

House members presented Speaker David Monson with a giant replica of the State Seal and sang Auld Lang Syne.