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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published December 06 2010

Prep begins for 2011 session

BISMARCK – Before North Dakota’s lawmakers begin voting on bills, they have more mundane jobs to finish – such as picking their Capitol desks, lobbying for prime committee assignments and getting refresher courses on how their laptop computers work.

Getting those preparatory tasks out of the way is the purpose of the North Dakota Legislature’s three-day organizational session, which begins today and ends shortly after newly minted Gov. Jack Dalrymple gives his budget recommendations to legislators at 10 a.m. Wednesday. It precedes the start of the 2011 Legislature, which begins Jan. 4.

“The organizational session lets you get a big jump-start on things,” said Sen. Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, the Senate’s majority leader. “It lets everyone get up to speed.”

Because lawmakers do not hold hearings or vote on legislation, the session does not count against the North Dakota Constitution’s limit of 80 days of legislative meetings every two years.

“Without the organizational session, we’d be spinning our wheels for the first few days,” said Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House majority leader. “When you have that 80-day deadline, you can’t afford to waste time.”

The session’s most important events will be Tuesday’s swearing in of Dalrymple and Drew Wrigley, his successor as lieutenant governor, and Dalrymple’s budget speech on Wednesday to a joint session of the Legislature. Lawmakers use the governor’s spending recommendations as a starting point for crafting the state’s next two-year budget, which takes effect July 1.

Incumbent Gov. John Hoeven is resigning Tuesday. Next month, the Republican takes office as North Dakota’s newest U.S. senator. Hoeven is the nation’s longest-serving governor, having begun his tenure on Dec. 15, 2000.

Opening day includes computer training sessions, briefings on legislative procedures for 22 new lawmakers and the swearing in of legislators who were elected last November. Members of the North Dakota House and Senate are elected to four-year terms, and about half of the Legislature’s membership is up for election every two years.

Lawmakers get parking stickers and space assignments, forms for ordering business cards and stationery, and electronic cards to use for getting in and out of the Capitol after normal business hours.

Each lawmaker also chooses his or her desk on the House or Senate loor today. Seats are assigned mostly by seniority, and the process resembles the first day of elementary school. Lawmakers are herded to the rear of the House and Senate chambers and called forward, one at a time, to pick the spot where they will spend hundreds of hours during the next four months.

Aside from Tuesday’s transfer-of-power ceremony and separate House and Senate presentations on legislative ethics, the second day’s schedule is uneventful, with computer training sessions likely to be the most widely attended events.

Stenehjem and Carlson said legislators should know their committee assignments by Tuesday night. The Senate has 11 committees that review bills according to their subject matter, while the House has 12; the “extra” House committee deals exclusively with proposed constitutional amendments.

Lawmakers fill out surveys beforehand to list their preferred committee assignments, and legislative leaders attempt to match up each legislator’s preferences to the spots available on committees. The House and Senate appropriations committees, which do the work of writing the next state budget, are the most frequently requested assignments, with many fewer spots available than there are legislators wanting to take one.

The organizational session adjourns shortly before 11 a.m. Wednesday, after Dalrymple finishes his budget address.

Although it is tightly scheduled, the organizational session leaves plenty of time for lawmakers to trade political gossip, sound out colleagues on proposed bills and renew acquaintances.

“There will be time to chat,” Stenehjem said. “But there are plenty of things to do.”