BISMARCK — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced Tuesday, April 27, he has vetoed a bill that would give a select group of lawmakers more authority to divvy up federal funds that come in between biennial legislative sessions.
Underneath the rejection lies a struggle for power between the executive and legislative branches that began shortly after the Republican governor took office in 2017. The tug-of-war has intensified during the current legislative session as lawmakers try to rein in the governor's authority after Burgum and his administration dominated top-level decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senate Bill 2290 would allow the Budget Section, a 42-member panel of lawmakers that meets between sessions, to overrule the Emergency Commission in dividing up incoming federal allocations of $3 million or more. The six-member commission, which includes the governor, the secretary of state and four top legislators, wielded significant discretion last year over how the state rationed a $1.25 billion federal coronavirus relief package amongst agencies and programs. During that process, the panel only got an up-or-down vote on appropriations approved by the commission.
The bill, sponsored by Minot Republican Sen. David Hogue, would also require the governor to call the Legislature in for a special session if the total amount of federal funds doled out by the commission and Budget Section exceeds $50 million during the two-year budget cycle.
Burgum said he vetoed the bill because it "clearly violates the separation of powers doctrine" and tries to force him to call lawmakers into a special session when they already know the state is due to receive much more than $50 million over the next two years via President Joe Biden's recently approved coronavirus stimulus package. The state is due to receive more than $1 billion in spending money from the package, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
The second-term governor said the Legislature's delegation of lawmaking authority to the microcosmic panel was already deemed unconstitutional by the highest court in the state. After lawmakers sued Burgum in 2018 over a veto-related dispute, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature had granted too much lawmaking authority to the panel.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who represented Burgum in the lawsuit three years ago, said Tuesday that the bill would allow for a subset of the Legislature to effectively make and amend laws.
"This (bill) has all the problems that (old) law had, plus more," Stenehjem said. "That's very problematic and would be difficult to defend against a constitutional challenge."
Lawmakers passed the bill this year by wide margins in both chambers, and the Senate voted unanimously on Tuesday to override Burgum's veto. If at least two-thirds of the House of Representatives votes to overrule the governor on Wednesday, the bill will immediately go on the law books.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said the full Legislature should have control of the state's purse strings even when it's not in session. Fargo Democratic Sen. Tim Mathern, who originally voted against the bill, said he decided to support the override because lawmakers should have a major role in deciding where the impending coronavirus aid will go.
If lawmakers force the bill into law without Burgum's blessing, it could be a repeat of 2018 and end up back in court.
Burgum has issued three other vetoes this session, but lawmakers only voted to override one on a bill barring state officials from issuing mask mandates.
Reporter Adam Willis contributed to this report.