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Published January 18 2011

Sen. Stenehjem explains weeklong absence

BISMARCK – Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem cleared up on Monday why he was gone all last week.

Stenehjem’s ab­sence fueled speculation among other media, especially when members of his own party weren’t sure where he was.

He said he didn’t tell anyone he would be gone because he “didn’t realize this was going to be such a big deal. It’s nice to know people miss me.”

So where was he? India.

Stenehjem, who lives in Bismarck, is vice chairman of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, comprised of members of state legislatures throughout the U.S. He was asked to participate in a bipartisan trade mission put together by the Alliance for U.S. India Business. The trip was paid for by the organization.

Throughout the week, Stenehjem listened to leading business leaders from India and other countries. While they were trying to sell him on their countries, Stenehjem worked to sell them on North Dakota.

“Do I think it’s necessarily overnight going to turn business around in North Dakota? Absolutely not. But these people in business and government over there have faces to go with a name and a name to go with a place,” he said.

Stenehjem, who came back with a stack of foreign business cards, said the trip allowed him an opportunity “to really highlight North Dakota.”

He feels his trip had value to the state, but added that he’d be more upfront in the future.

Stenehjem said he didn’t set the dates for the trip and considered not going because it was during the session. However, he said the second week of the session tends to be slow and filled with “a lot of mechanics.”

Senate journals show Stenehjem was absent at roll call on Jan. 7 and all five working days last week.

Lawmakers excuse absent members, so they still receive their pay. Stenehjem is paid $158 each calendar day during the session.

Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor of Towner said time will tell how valuable Stenehjem’s trip was to North Dakota. He questioned the timing of the trip.

“I don’t know if I would have left my caucus, even as minority leader, on a trip that didn’t have to be taken,” Taylor said.

Stenehjem’s trip isn’t the first time lawmakers have missed a portion of the session for travel. One of the more publicized occurrences was when a group of Republican lawmakers later known as the “Vegas 9” traveled to Las Vegas.

Depending on when they each left, they missed anywhere from 22 to 63 votes from Thursday, March 27 to Monday, March 31, 2003, when they attended an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting in Las Vegas.

Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.