BISMARCK – Lawmakers are often at the forefront of legislative sessions, but behind the scenes several people work to make it happen.
John Bjornson, director of legislative council, said Monday there’s an extensive number of tasks needed to be done to prepare for session.
Those tasks vary from the logistics of getting committee rooms ready, testing the technology of livestreams and legislators’ iPads, budget preparations, drafting bills, and more.
“We have about 40 staff,” Bjornson explained. “Attorneys, fiscal analysts, IT staff, library staff and other support staff. Everybody’s involved in the preparation for the session in many ways.”
Legislative council begins preparations usually in September leading up to the session.
“All through the interim between sessions we have a legislative interim committee that’s responsible for session arrangements,” said Bjornson. “So that committee will probably meet first in June of the year following a session to start getting ready for the next session.”
Bjornson said preparations for drafting a bill would include initial research to determine what the solution to a problem might be that’s brought to them by a legislator and putting it down on paper. The draft is then reviewed by a second attorney and a further entity which proofreads the draft.
“Even a short, one-section bill can take some time,” said Bjornson. “Yesterday, for example, I reviewed a 50 plus page bill and it basically took me eight hours to get through that, and another person will review it and then it will be proofread and edited.”
During session, legislative council works until the work is done, which means staff could be working holidays, nights, and weekends.
“Generally, for the attorneys, accountants and IT staff, they don’t get paid overtime for that extra work, it’s just sort of expected to do the job,” Bjornson explained.
Bjornson, who has been involved in legislative council for 34 years, said the number of new legislators this interim is a difference from other sessions he’s seen in the past, with around 40 legislators coming into their first session.
“That provides some unique challenges helping them get up to speed,” said Bjornson. “We also have new staff going into their first session, so they have to understand the process and get acclimated to the difference between interim work and session work.”
Sessions are more challenging when there is additional money for the state to spend, says Bjornson.
“Everybody wants a little piece of the pie,” Bjornson explained. “We have been seeing a little bit higher number of bill draft requests come in up to this point. I think we’ve drafted in the neighborhood of 700 bills. Typically, we end up drafting in the area of 1,000 to maybe 1,100, so we might be running a little bit ahead of the pace.”
The deadline for bills to be introduced is January 9, though legislators can add five more after that.
Bjornson believes this is the first time since 2003 there have been new majority leaders in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as two new appropriations chairmen.
“That might present a unique challenge as well,” said Bjornson. “Just getting everybody up to speed in their new roles and leadership roles. You never know what to expect, so you just try to prepare for all circumstances and do your best to be ready, because there’s only 80 legislative days to get the job done, and the staff, we don’t want to be the ones that slow things down. We’re working to make sure we’re on top of things.”
There is a scheduled a tribal address at 10 a.m. Tuesday, the State of the Judiciary at 11 a.m., and the official gaveling in at 12 p.m. in each chamber. The governor will give his State of the State address at 1 p.m.
Since bills must go through committee before they reach the floor, no bills will be in the chambers Tuesday, but committee hearing schedules can be found here.