UPDATED: Stenehjem explains absence

BISMARCK—Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem of Bismarck cleared up Monday why he was gone all last week.

Stenehjem’s absence fueled speculation among other media, especially when members of his own party weren’t sure where he was.

“I didn’t realize this was going to be such a big deal,” Stenehjem said. “It’s nice to know people miss me.”

So where was he? India.

Stenehjem serves as vice chairman of the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, comprised of members of state legislatures throughout the U.S. He was asked to participate in a bipartisan trade mission put together by the Alliance for U.S. India Business. The trip was paid for by the organization.

Throughout the week, Stenehjem listened to leading business leaders from India and other foreign countries. While they were trying to sell him on their countries, Stenehjem worked to sell them on North Dakota.

“Do I think it’s necessarily overnight going to turn business around in North Dakota? Absolutely not. But these people in business and government over there have faces to go with a name and a name to go with a place,” he said.

According to a news release, the event’s purpose is to strengthen U.S.-India trade relations and “give our delegates a special opportunity to interact and form meaningful alliances with business and policy leaders in India.”

Stenehjem, who came back with a stack of foreign business cards, said the trip allowed him an opportunity “to really highlight North Dakota.”

Stenehjem said he didn’t set the dates for the trip and considered not going since it was during the session. However, he said the second week of the session tends to be slow and filled with “a lot of mechanics.”

He feels his trip had value to the state and again said he didn’t think his absence would be such a big deal. He said he’d be more upfront in the future.

While some North Dakotans voiced unhappiness over Stenehjem’s absence, Legislative Council Director Jim Smith said he isn’t aware of any related written policies. Lawmakers can excuse the absent members each day, Smith said.

As a result, absent members are still paid for the day. Stenehjem is paid $158 each calendar day during the session.

According to the Senate journals, Stenehjem was absent at roll call on Jan. 7 and all five working days last week.

Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor of Towner said time will tell how valuable Stenehjem’s trip was to North Dakota. However, he questioned the timing of the trip.

“I don’t know if I would have left my caucus, even as minority leader, on a trip that didn’t have to be taken,” Taylor said.

Taylor said the ultimate judge will be the voters in Stenehjem’s district.

Stenehjem’s trip isn’t the first time lawmakers have missed the session for travel. One of the more publicized occurrences was a group of Republican lawmakers later known as the “Vegas 9.”

Depending on when they each left, they missed anywhere from 22 to 63 votes from Thursday, March 27 to Monday, March 31, 2003, when they attended an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting in Las Vegas.

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