BISMARCK — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has signed a bill into law that slightly tilts the balance of powers from his office to the state Legislature in future emergencies.
Many lawmakers have become increasingly frustrated with Burgum's tight grip on pandemic decision-making over the last year, and the proposal sponsored by Finley Republican Rep. Bill Devlin picked up bipartisan support in both chambers of the Legislature.
The new law will allow legislative leaders to request that the governor call lawmakers back to Bismarck for a special session if he or she issues a state of emergency — a designation that gives the executive branch extraordinary powers. If the governor does not call a special session within a week, the emergency order would automatically end 30 days after the lawmakers sent their request to meet. The law will also allow lawmakers to end, extend or change a declared state of emergency during a special session.
Burgum expressed reluctance in putting his name to House Bill 1118 on Wednesday, April 21, saying the rules in place during the pandemic served North Dakotans well.
"House Bill 1118 is an erosion of executive authority in reaction to an extremely challenging year of responding to a global pandemic, during which we were in frequent contact with legislative leaders and members," Burgum said in a statement. "While we believe the current system worked well, this bill represents a compromise that allows for broader legislative involvement in future statewide health emergencies that affect all North Dakotans.”
North Dakota has been in a continuous state of emergency since March 2020, but Burgum announced Wednesday he will lift the designation at the end of the month.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been critical of Burgum's handling of the pandemic, with some calling for stronger mitigation measures and others lobbying for a laissez faire approach. Democratic legislators complained Burgum and Republican leaders unilaterally decided how to spend the state's $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds, but the minority party's calls for a special session were denied.
Coming into the session, top Republicans said old laws allowed the governor too much latitude in his response to the pandemic. The Legislature, which only meets for regular sessions every two years, originally granted the executive branch more control during a state of emergency in 1987 as a reaction to a measles outbreak in Grand Forks.
“We gave away a lot of authority in the late 1980s, and I do agree that we need to go through this process because the Legislature needs to take some of that authority back,” House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said earlier this year.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Senate killed a similar proposal to restrict the governor's emergency powers after it was loaded with unrelated provisions. The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Janne Myrdal, of Edinburg, expressed frustration at the insertions to her bill and said the Legislature came up short in its aim to adequately rein in executive authority this session.
"We (Republicans) are the supermajority in this state, and the one thing people asked us to do was deal with this issue. And as a majority we have totally failed to do that," Myrdal said.
Reporter Adam Willis contributed to this report.