BISMARCK — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has vetoed a bill that would bar state officials from issuing mask mandates in the future.

The Republican governor's denial of House Bill 1323 on Wednesday, April 21, means the controversial proposal is dead unless two-thirds of each house in the GOP-led Legislature votes to override the veto. The bill made it through the House of Representatives with more than the two-thirds margin last week, but it would need to pick up at least two new supporters in the Senate where the legislation passed more narrowly.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said prior to the veto it's likely the upper chamber would reconsider the bill if it were to bounce back, though the Dickinson Republican declined to speculate on whether there would be enough votes to override Burgum.

Burgum said he vetoed the bill because it "removes a tool from the emergency toolkit" that could be crucial in a future health crisis.

"To strip future governors and their state health officers of any low-cost tool that might be used to save lives and livelihoods in a future pandemic or other emergency would be both irresponsible and an unnecessary risk to the future public health and well-being of North Dakota citizens," Burgum said in a veto message.

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In its original form, the legislation would have prohibited any public body from requiring masks, but the Senate amended it to continue allowing local governments and school boards to impose the public health measure.

The Legislature's pushback on compulsory mask-wearing comes five months after Burgum's administration imposed a statewide face covering mandate amid the nation's most severe COVID-19 outbreak. A handful of cities and counties, including Fargo, Grand Forks and Bismarck, independently required mask use in public prior to the state mandate, which expired in January.

The mask issue has been extremely contentious in libertarian-leaning North Dakota, where many conservative lawmakers and residents view mandates as attacks on their personal freedoms. The state's health officials and doctors have pleaded with residents to wear masks throughout the pandemic, pointing to a massive drop in COVID-19 cases following the November mandate as evidence that the measure worked.

Burgum wrestled with the question himself and even dismissed the effectiveness of mandates before reversing his position. He noted in his veto message that North Dakota's 65-day mandate was the shortest in the country.

Minot Republican Rep. Jeff Hoverson, the bill's sponsor, said Burgum's veto capped off "a bad day for freedom," adding he hopes lawmakers will band together and override the governor. Hoverson said Burgum "is not a Republican" because he's complicit in robbing residents of their individual liberties.

Elected officials in a few other states, including Arizona and Idaho, have considered banning mask mandates in some form, but if North Dakota lawmakers override Burgum's veto, the state could be the first to pass a sweeping prohibition on state-ordered mask requirements.

Demonstrators gathered outside the North Dakota Capitol in support of a proposal to ban mask mandates on April 5, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Demonstrators gathered outside the North Dakota Capitol in support of a proposal to ban mask mandates on April 5, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

The bill has drawn support from a vocal group of residents who oppose mask requirements. Protesters took to the Capitol steps earlier this month to drum up support for the legislation, which was originally seen as a long shot to get through the upper chamber.

Opponents said the bill could tie the hands of state leaders during future pandemics when masks may be an even more effective disease prevention measure.

Several proposals passed this legislative session have aimed to wrest authority away from the governor, including a bill that would rein in the executive branch's emergency powers. Burgum signed that bill Wednesday, saying it was a compromise allowing for greater legislative involvement in emergency situations.

Apart from his handling of the pandemic, Burgum rubbed some Republican lawmakers the wrong way by targeting members of his own party with negative political advertising during the last election cycle.

Earlier in the day, Burgum announced North Dakota's pandemic state of emergency, which gives the executive branch extraordinary powers, will expire at the end of the month after more than a year in effect. Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, who has been highly critical of Burgum and the prolonged emergency designation, said the governor appeared to be giving himself political "elbow room" by affirming the end of his special authority just before rejecting a bill that would limit his office's influence.