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ND Capitol blacks out

BISMARCK -- The North Dakota Legislature ground to a halt for about half an hour Tuesday as power went out all over the Capitol.

"It was like a snow day," said Rep. Eliot Glassheim, D-Grand Forks, as lawmakers were helpless to discuss anything when clerks couldn't record testimonies and few could even read their bill books, the hardcopies of bills that each have on hand.

The conversation, he said, turned to what to have for dinner.

The House Education Committee had a worse problem because its meeting room is not far from an entrance into the Capitol, so it can get pretty cold and drafty without the heat on, said Chairwoman RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan.

Her committee was in the middle of discussing a bill when everything went dark. After it became clear the situation would last a while, she told committee members to come back 10 minutes after the power came on.

It never did in that section of the Capitol, the Judiciary Wing, which, coincidentally, is where all the information technology equipment is. For the rest of the day, e-mail, Internet access and even phone lines were out of commission. State websites were out as well, including the Department of Transportation's road conditions map.

Jeff Zent, the governor's spokesman, said a transformer burned out, causing all the problems. Crews were working hard to find a fix, and IT staff already are talking about how to prevent a recurrence, he said.

There were some thoughts that power would be restored to the Judiciary Wing along with the Internet and phone services today, but Kelsch said Tuesday afternoon she doubted it, asking committee members to convene in a different room.

For lawmakers, it wasn't a major disruption. Though both legislative chambers had to cancel their meetings, most, if not all the bills ready for votes, are not controversial ones this early in the session.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, Fargo, got on the intercom and said lawmakers will be "going back to the good ol' days," before having committee heads announce where their committees will be meeting.

In the same intercom announcement, Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, asked in a deadpan voice if lawmakers were still getting paid for this, but Carlson said he was out of order.

Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, said lawmakers rely on a web-based system that tracks the bills and lets them keep notes. Also, the clerks do their data entry through the same system, he said, and it'd be tough to do it by hand and then re-enter into the computer.

Glassheim, who's been in the House since 1993, said he's never seen anything like this power outage. He said he heard there were even people stuck in the elevator for half an hour. Heads would probably roll, he said, but caught himself before finishing the thought; the finger pointing could also go the other way maybe for lack of funding.

This report was compiled by­­­ the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.