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Stenehjem: Burgum overstepped authority on some vetoes

Wayne Stenehjem talks during a stop May 19, 2016, in Fargo. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum overstepped his constitutional authority on several recent vetoes, the attorney general said in an opinion released Monday, June 19.

Wayne Stenehjem’s opinion, requested by the House and Senate majority leaders last month, comes two days before a legislative committee is scheduled to discuss how to address several vetoes the first-term Republican governor issued after the session ended in late April. Grand Forks Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg, chairman of Legislative Management, said he expects the meeting to include deliberation on whether to call lawmakers back to Bismarck to override the vetoes, Holmberg said.

Stenehjem’s analysis largely centered around four bills of which Burgum sought to veto portions. They were budget bills for higher education, the Department of Commerce, the State Water Commission and the Department of Trust Lands.

In several instances, Stenehjem said Burgum tried to veto conditions or restrictions on spending without vetoing the appropriation itself. He pointed to Burgum’s attempt to strike three words from the higher education funding bill that prevented Dickinson State University from discontinuing “any portion of” its nursing program.

The governor was within constitutional limits in other cases, however, like when he vetoed a section of bill appropriating $300,000 to an organization that provides workplace safety, Stenehjem said.

The longtime Republican attorney general also said that while Burgum’s vetoes of portions of the Water Commission and Trust Lands bills were not authorized by the Constitution, the vetoed language “would be found by a court to violate the separation of powers doctrine.” He said the “significant budgetary decisions” delegated to an interim legislative committee by those two bills “are rightly within the function of the executive branch.”

In a statement, Burgum’s office said they were pleased “that the attorney general’s opinion supports the overriding intent of these vetoes: to protect executive branch authority, preserve the separation of powers and prevent the spending of scarce state resources without the benefit of full transparency and the scrutiny of public involvement afforded through full legislative review.”

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, didn’t return a message seeking comment late Monday afternoon. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he hadn’t had a chance to read the opinion.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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