Legislative Q&A: John Bjornson, Director

At the heart of every legislature is the staff ensuring its smooth running. In this Legislative Q&A series, we’re talking to legislative experts and staff about their journey to the legislature, shining a light on the working lives at the heart of American law-making. In this interview, we speak with John Bjornson, Director at the North Dakota Legislative Council. John tells us about his first working experiences mowing lawns, doing farm work, painting, and pouring concrete before he embarked on a long and enjoyable career at the North Dakota Legislative Council – work he would not have expected to make his career in the first place! Although North Dakota is often considered an ice box, John says that one thing he loves about his state is the beautiful warm, summers. 

1. John, tell us a bit about your background. What was your first job? What was your first experience of the working world?

I grew up in a small town in the northeast corner of North Dakota. My first job was mowing lawns. During my school years, I spent my summers and school vacations doing farm work, painting, and pouring concrete. Although I didn’t mind the hard work, I knew there had to be an easier way to make money! My first full-time job after finishing law school was as an attorney with the North Dakota Legislative Council, where I still work over 34 years later.

2. What led you to work at the legislature initially? What was the draw for you?

I always had a strong interest in state and local government. After taking a legislative drafting class in law school, I was fortunate to have a professor recommend me for an opening at the Legislative Council. I also worked in the city attorney’s office during law school and had the opportunity to draft local ordinances and work with city council committees. Although I really did not have much of an idea of what the Council did, it was a real job that seemed like to could be interesting for a couple years.

3. How did you find the work? Was it different from what you imagined?

Although I thought it would be an entry level, short-term job and really did not know what to expect, I found I really enjoyed legal research and drafting legislation.

4. What did you enjoy most? What was your biggest learning in your first couple of years?

I enjoyed drafting bills and working with legislators to craft legislation that would provide a solution for the problem they identified. Gaining a deep understanding of the legislative process was an interesting, but time-consuming process. Because our office is the only full-time staff for our legislature and our staff is very small, we have to master a number of subject matter areas, which can be a challenge.

5. How has your role changed and progressed over time?

After the first session, I continued in a legal counsel position but added responsibility for engrossing and enrolling. Later, I served as assistant code revisor, code revisor, and legal division director before being appointed director in 2018.

6. How has technology in the legislature evolved throughout your career?

By light years! In the first years of working for the legislature, our technology consisted of a telephone, dictation recorder, books, pens, and paper. Eventually, we moved to PCs, emails, and the internet. But, until about a decade ago, our bill drafting system was a mainframe system to which the drafters didn’t even have access. We still were either cutting and pasting or dictating for support personnel to enter into the system. Now, drafters, editors, proofreaders, and all others involved in the process have access to the same drafting system in which everything is done electronically. Access to effective technology has made the entire legislative process far more efficient and reduced a significant amount of strain on our staff.

7. What is on your radar for 2023? What do you think are the biggest talking points of the year?

We have a regular session beginning in the first week of January. As usual we will have significant policy issues to address, but budget issues always seem to dominate. Although the current budget situation appears positive, long-term on-going spending is a concern. As director of the office, my concern is being able to be competitive in retaining and recruiting staff in a market subject to inflationary pressures. Also, we will be looking to begin a project to upgrade our drafting and session management systems.

8. North Dakota is synonymous with the Great Plains. What is one thing that you love about your state?

We have great summers. Most people think we live in an ice box, but we have beautiful, warm summers with long hours of daylight.

9. If you could travel back in time and speak with your younger self, what advice would you give?

Maintain a good work/life balance and enjoy every day. Also, take some golf lessons.

10. What advice would you give to young staff just starting their legislative careers?

Learn as much as you can in as many areas as you can. A broad subject matter knowledge and knowledge of the entire legislative process will prepare you well for positions of greater responsibility.

11. Thanks for participating in our Legislative Q&A. Before we wrap up, do you have any final comments?

I never would have expected to make legislative work my career, but I do not regret it. I have been given the opportunity to learn and grow my skills while doing something I really enjoy. Sometimes you choose your path and sometimes the path chooses you. Either way, make the best of it and enjoy the journey.