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2009 session made more history than most

BISMARCK - Legislative sessions often make some history with new laws or initiatives. Thanks to natural disasters, a nationwide recession and a tobacco program controversy, the 61st Legislative Assembly, which adjourned just after midnight Tuesda...

BISMARCK - Legislative sessions often make some history with new laws or initiatives. Thanks to natural disasters, a nationwide recession and a tobacco program controversy, the 61st Legislative Assembly, which adjourned just after midnight Tuesday morning, made more than most.

It is the longest in state history, 79 days, only one day shy of lawmakers' constitutional limit every two years. This is the second session in two years to break a record; the 2007 session's 78 days was previously the longest. The Legislature has not ended in fewer than 71 days since 1997.

This session was the first to extend into May, and that was due to another first - the first session interrupted by a flood.

Lawmakers lost four working days due to statewide record floods and blizzards in late March. With members rushing home to deal with flooded or threatened homes and businesses, and others wracked by worry, they adjourned on March 25.

It was to have been a two-day recess; they intended to reconvene the following Monday. But a blizzard kept them from getting back to the Capitol and they didn't begin again until April 1.

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This year's Legislature nearly became party to a lawsuit when the House balked at funding the Measure 3 tobacco initiative voters approved in November, and it looked like they would adjourn without providing the money. Last-minute negotiations helped drag out the session.

But lawmakers and governors are more interested in other kinds of history.

Who would have thought legislators would start a session with a $1.2 billion surplus, House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said when it was over.

That enabled the Legislature to allocate $39.7 million to expand the state's history museum. The project, which will also need

$12 million in fundraising cash, will more than double the size of the Heritage Center. Approval caused grown men in the Senate to weep with pride and sentiment.

Nor did anyone expect the $650 million windfall the state will get from the federal stimulus package Congress passed this winter - after the governor and lawmakers had settled on a budget. Though legislators never considered turning down the money, "It didn't make our jobs any easier" in building a budget, said Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem.

With Gov. John Hoeven's encouragement, the Legislature enacted $395 million in property and income tax cuts, including a small amount for corporations. The new school funding program, which cuts property owners' school taxes by up to 75 mills, is unprecedented in the state.

The federal stimulus funds also arrived just in time to free up funds to help the state pay for rebuilding roads and bridges torn apart by record snowfall and the catastrophic statewide flooding. That resulted in an extraordinary $1.3 billion in transportation funding.

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And, for the first time, spurred on by a worker shortage, the state will be involved in encouraging expansion of child care services, something some legislators have implored their colleagues to do for 10 years.

The session was also unique in one way that brought the state national attention. Rep. Dan Ruby's "personhood" bill was discussed all around the country as a possible challenge to Roe v. Wade. The bill failed.

Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. She can be reached at (701) 224-0830 or forumcap@btinet.net

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