The 2021 Legislature is about two weeks from its conclusion. This means people who follow the Legislature will become more familiar with the arcane world of conference committees.
What is a conference committee? It is a group of six legislators – three senators and three House members, four Republicans and two Democrats. When the House and Senate approve different versions of the same bill, conference committees are often appointed to work out the differences between those two versions. The members are drawn from the House and Senate committees that reviewed the bill.
Two senators and two House members from either party must agree on a bill’s final language to finish a conference committee’s work. When a bargain is struck, the result is presented to the Legislature for its approval. Both the House and Senate must approve the same version of a bill for it to have a chance at becoming law.
As of late Friday, 50 conference committees had been partially or wholly appointed. (“Partially appointed” means the House has appointed its conference committee members and the Senate hasn’t, or vice versa.)
The best way to track conference committee meetings is through regular checks of the Legislature’s website here. The schedule is updated frequently. Conference committee meetings can happen with a few hours’ notice, unlike regular committee hearings, which are normally scheduled at least a week in advance.
Each day’s House and Senate calendar also has a list of bills that are in conference committees, plus names of the members of those committees.
Conference committees typically meet for a half-hour. For budget bills and other complex bills, they will meet for an hour at a time. If the bill is a House bill, a House member will chair the conference committee. The same is true of the Senate.
Conference committees are supposed to concentrate on the two chambers’ differences on a bill, rather than tinker with the entire bill. Sometimes, however, they go beyond just debating the differences between the two versions.
Conference committee meetings will be livestreamed on the Legislature’s website, just as regular committee hearings and House and Senate floor sessions are. A list of the day’s video events is here.
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Starting Monday, the House and Senate will be holding two daily floor sessions, beginning at 8 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. This is to allow for more final votes on bills, and to provide additional time for conference committee meetings. Two-a-days happen when the Legislature begins pushing to its finish.
The North Dakota Constitution limits the Legislature to 80 days of meetings every two years. Lawmakers want to leave themselves several extra days, to give themselves the option of coming back to Bismarck later this year for additional budget work. The Legislature also has the task of using the new 2020 census results to draw a new legislative district map in time for the 2022 elections.
Monday is Day 63 of the session. If only weekdays are used for legislative days, Friday, April 23, will be the 72nd day of the Legislature. Final adjournment on that day or earlier would leave at least eight days for future use.
Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, the Republican majority leader, said Friday he is optimistic the session can wrap up sometime during the week of April 19. Conference committees are settling quickly, he said, and the House and Senate are closer to agreements on budget issues “than we’ve been in years,” Wardner said.
“We’ve got a billion dollars of federal money laying out there that we don’t know what to do with yet,” Wardner said. “We are going to need some days probably later on in the biennium to come back and take care of that.”
Please hope for a rainy weekend!