As he counted down the days to retirement, John Walstad summed up his 35 years of drafting bills for North Dakota lawmakers with the dry wit that endeared him to so many in the Capitol.
“I do what I understand they want, as best I can,” he said, “and then I hand it to them and say, ‘OK, it’s your problem now.’ ”
When lawmakers convene in special session on Aug. 2, they’ll do so without one of their longest-serving, most knowledgeable and funniest Legislative Council attorneys. Walstad is retiring July 31 as the council’s legal division director since August 2013.
Sen. Dwight Cook, a Mandan Republican who chairs the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee, spent countless hours in Walstad’s second-floor office, mixing the serious work of drafting tax bills with a healthy dose of humor.
“He’s not only good at what he does, but he’s a joy to work with,” Cook said. “Even in committees, when he explains things, he explains things thoroughly, but you’re going to get a laugh out of him at some point.”
Cook, who at 64 years old is the same age as Walstad and had the same math professor as him at North Dakota State University, marveled at his familiarity with the state’s intertwined tax laws, where a change in one area might affect several others.
“We’re going miss him. His institutional knowledge, it’s invaluable,” he said.
A Minot native and the youngest of five children, Walstad said he “grew up on rock-n-roll and the Twins,” the Minnesota pro baseball team whose 1987 World Series pennant hangs above his desk.
He attended NDSU for two years and later earned a history degree at Minot State University, “which is kind of useless as far as employment,” he joked.
Walstad earned his law degree at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks in 1978 and worked for a Minot law firm for two years before the State Bar Association hired him for a yearlong project.
“But I was stupid and finished it in nine months. Worked myself out of a job,” he said.
Two Legislative Council attorneys had left right after the 1981 session ended, so Walstad joined the agency that June, getting assigned the tax portfolio.
“I got here and just never thought about doing anything else after I got the hang of this,” he said.
Jim Smith, who joined Legislative Council two years before Walstad and has been its director for the past nine years, said Walstad proved himself a smart, dedicated and seemingly unflappable co-worker.
“He brought a different, likeable personality,” Smith said. “He always lightens the day a bit.”
Walstad said he was “lucky” not to say anything that might offend someone, and he always tried to stick to nonpartisan jokes.
“I always try and stop myself, but I just can’t help it. When something occurs to me, I just have to share it,” he said.
Along with supplying the comic relief, Walstad was always accurate and nonpartisan, an important quality in Legislative Council attorneys, said Sen. Ray Holmberg of Grand Forks, a state senator since 1977. He added that Walstad’s knowledge of tax laws “is phenomenal and will be missed.”
Walstad said he had a hand in every tax bill to come through the Legislature during his 17 regular sessions and drafted most of them, a process that has changed immensely from handwritten drafts and dictation machines to an automated paperless bill drafting system.
The 1980s farm crisis and oil bust led to some difficult sessions and “very, very long hours” of drafting and redrafting bills in the days before computers, he said, noting he sees similarities to the state’s current budget situation.
“The Legislature has to make some hard choices again,” he said.
Walstad said he leaves behind some “very good attorneys” and will miss the lawmakers, elected officials and state employees. And while their professional relationship prevented him from buddying up too closely with lawmakers, “I really consider all of them my friends,” he said.
Jeanne Walstad, his wife of nearly 35 years and mother to their three adult sons, will continue to work for the North Dakota Supreme Court.
Asked what he plans to do in retirement, Walstad didn’t miss a beat.