McFeely blog: N.D. legislators not in session but, seriously, where are they?

Gov. Doug Burgum speaks about coronavirus at a press conference in the North Dakota Capitol on Wednesday, April 29. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

As a follow-up to my column posted at InForum yesterday, slapping North Dakota Republican legislators for whining about a power play by fellow Republican Gov. Doug Burgum , I have questions.

Where exactly is the Legislature? Particularly Republicans who have a problem with Burgum using his bully pulpit, influence and money to expand his executive powers?

Yes, I know that the North Dakota Legislature meets only every other year. It is different than the Minnesota Legislature that meets every year. It's easier for Minnesota lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, to be more engaged more of the time because they are in session more often.

But why have we not heard, to the best of my knowledge, Republican lawmakers making public calls for a special session, or more influence on decisions being made by Burgum or — given their apparent concern over the governor's attempt to mold the Legislature more to his liking — at least a call for him to wield his executive powers lightly?

Instead, the same legislators concerned about Burgum consolidating power and having too much legislative influence from the executive branch have totally ceded power to the governor during the greatest crisis North Dakota has faced in decades. A public-health crisis combined with an economic collapse combined with sky-high numbers of unemployed citizens combined with the cratering of the state's second-most important industry (oil) combined with unique pressures on the most important industry (agriculture) combined with ....


You get the picture. This is a historically challenging time for the state, regardless of whether you think the coronavirus is a hoax against your beloved president or that our response has been overreaction. And, oddly, the Legislature has chosen to voluntarily sit this one out with nary a peep.

About the only thing legislative leaders have said publicly about their non-response to the challenges brought by the pandemic was a statewide letter to the editor signed by Senate majority leader Rich Wardner and House majority leader Chet Pollert that said, "The truth is, calling a special session right now would be premature and a misuse of taxpayer dollars."

"From a state budgeting perspective, we do not yet have a full picture on sales tax revenue impacts, which is a key indicator of the state’s overall economy. Nor do we have stable oil prices with which to make budgetary projections. All of this information should be much clearer by the time we prepare for the regular session in December," the letter said.

State Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, left, is chairman of the Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee. Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, is vice chairman. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

OK, so there is no urgency for the Legislature to get back in session to address economically catastrophic events hammering North Dakota. Nor is there even an urgency to call for a special session to at least let Burgum know you're uncomfortable with his broad and unquestioned use of executive powers for the last two months.

Forum News Service blogger Rob Port called more than a month ago for the Legislature to go into special session . He called for legislators to engage, given the unprecedented times. At the time, I disagreed with Rob because, frankly, I figured the only thing North Dakota legislators would do is get in the way and muck things up with their usual silliness, partisanship and grudges.

Now, though, I have to say I agree.



Again, not because I think legislators would necessarily do anything worthy, but because they could at least make a peep that they are engaged in what's happening.

North Dakota legislators have been utterly disconnected from the pandemic and as silent as Marcel Marceau. Where are you, boys and girls?

Other than nutty Rep. Luke Simons of Dickinson threatening to open his barber shop in defiance of Burgum's orders, it's been crickets. And even Simons' "action" was made as a private citizen, not a legislator.

Again, acknowledging the differences between the states, and acknowledging that Gov. Tim Walz is a Democrat and it is Republican legislators who have been critical of him, Minnesota has had a robust debate over the governor's use of executive powers and emergency declarations. Republicans, however wise it was of them, threatened to scuttle the all-important bonding bill if Walz continued to exercise his emergency declaration powers. Their argument was, of course, an attempt to win political points as a minority party in the state, but it was also an attempt by Legislature to exercise its power and try to have a say in policy-making during the pandemic.

For what it's worth, some Democrats privately have the same concerns and wanted more of a say in how the state responded to the coronavirus in terms of the shutdown and business openings.

This is what we call "checks and balances" and "co-equal branches of government" in civics classes.

In North Dakota, though, while sniveling on one hand about Burgum being a bully, Republican legislators have willingly sat on the sidelines during the pandemic and allowed Burgum to rule the state solely by executive power.


So which one is it? Or are the big, bad legislators simply afraid to get involved with the heavy lifting?



Opinion by Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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