BISMARCK — The narrow advancement of a bill to hold annual sessions of the North Dakota Legislature was the buzz of the state Capitol Friday, Feb. 19.

That's because the bill skated by the Senate in rare fashion, drawing tying votes from the senators and a tiebreaker from Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, a split made possible because one senator was absent.

"I never like to be in the spotlight," said Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, who left the floor session early and said he was soon receiving text messages from his colleagues letting him know that he had inadvertently "caused some problems."

If passed, Senate Bill 2218 would allow for annual sessions of the North Dakota Legislature, which currently meets every two years. And though the bill wouldn't change the structure of sessions in odd numbered years, it would institute shorter sessions in even numbered years.

Right now, North Dakota is one of just four states, including Texas, Nevada and Montana, that only go into session every other year.

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The decision by the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, to cast a tiebreaking vote is exceptionally rare. To be possible in the first place, the 47-member body must vote in a 23-23 tie. Even then, the lieutenant governor isn't obligated to take a side. In three sessions presiding over the Senate, Sanford said he had never broken a tie until Friday, when he broke two (the other was on Senate Bill 2275, which would appropriate money for the director of a task force on child sexual abuse).

In a rare occurrence, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford cast two tiebreaking votes while presiding over the Senate on Friday, Feb. 19. One of them advanced Senate Bill 2218, which would institute annual sessions of the North Dakota Legislature. Screenshot via North Dakota Legislature
In a rare occurrence, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford cast two tiebreaking votes while presiding over the Senate on Friday, Feb. 19. One of them advanced Senate Bill 2218, which would institute annual sessions of the North Dakota Legislature. Screenshot via North Dakota Legislature

But with such an even break on the issue, Sanford said he believed the annual sessions bill deserved consideration in the House.

"If I would have been there, it would have turned out differently," said Wanzek, who noted that he opposes the push for an annual session and would have voted against the bill if he was present. North Dakota's Capitol chambers are populated by part-time lawmakers, and Wanzek said he believes the biennial structure is important to maintaining a citizen-led Legislature. "It's worked for how many years? Many, many years," he said.

Wanzek said he had to leave early for a scheduled angiogram with his cardiologist. He had previously scheduled an appointment for the same screening a month ago, but tested positive for COVID-19 in a rapid test at the Capitol that same day.

And the precarious advancement of the bill on Friday doesn't guarantee its graduation out of the Senate chamber. Because Wanzek was absent, he could revive it on the floor Monday, Feb. 22, the next day of the session.

Though he opposes the movement for yearly sessions, Wanzek said he wanted to take the weekend to decide whether he'd force the question again. "For right now, I'm just gonna sleep on it," he said.

The lead sponsor on the annual sessions bill, Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston, said he hadn't discussed the legislation before with Sanford but appreciated the lieutenant governor's decision to weigh in. And he noted that while the House has overturned an annual sessions bill before, it has never seen legislation on the issue that had already been approved by the Senate.

"I would really appreciate them seeing a Senate bill," he said.