Port: Bills to restrict governor's emergency powers good, but also a bit hypocritical

I'm glad at least some lawmakers are now embracing the need for legislative involvement in emergency policymaking, but I wish they'd taken that same stand last year.

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North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stands to the side during a news conference on Oct. 23 in Bismarck. Kyle Martin / The Forum

MINOT, N.D. — There are two pieces of legislation before our lawmakers in Bismarck this session that would curtail the governor's emergency powers.

Obviously, a hot button issue since we've been in a state of emergency since the spring of last year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the Senate, S.B. 2124 , introduced by Sen. Janne Myrdal (R-Edinburg), would limit emergency declarations to no longer than 30 days. That can be extended for another 30 days, but only if the governor calls the Legislature into a special session (the bill also creates new law allowing that session to be held virtually if need be). Once the emergency declaration terminates, all executive orders issued under its auspices cease to be effective.

In the House, H.B. 1118 , introduced by Rep. Bill Devlin (R-Finley), does similar things. It would limit emergency declarations to no more than 60 days, after which the governor must ask for an extension to be approved by the Legislature.

Both bills prohibit the governor from skirting these restrictions by declaring a new emergency for the same situation.


These bills need some tweaks — I'd like to see language making it clear that, once the Legislature's involved, a disaster declaration can be made long enough to cover a situation like this pandemic we've all lived through — but they're headed in the right direction.

They're also tinged with some hypocrisy.

If lawmakers were concerned about their lack of involvement in managing the state through an emergency over the last year, why didn't they speak up for a special session? They didn't even need a call to a special session from Gov. Doug Burgum. The lawmakers had some of their biennial 80-day allotment left and the statutory authority to call themselves into session and use those days.

They didn't. Instead, legislative leadership (including House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, a co-sponsor of Devlin's bill) poo-pooed the idea of a special session.

They said it wasn't necessary.

During one of the worst crises our state has ever faced, our lawmakers chose to be bystanders and let Burgum make pandemic policy independently.

This is not a criticism of Burgum. I think he has largely done a superb job of guiding our state through a terrible time, but ours is a system of checks and balances. Emergency declarations allow the governor to wield an enormous amount of power unilaterally. That might be fine for short periods of time when it's impractical or impossible to bring the Legislature into session. But for prolonged emergencies, when the Legislature can meet virtually?

There's no need for it.


I'm glad at least some lawmakers are now embracing the need for legislative involvement in emergency policymaking, but I wish they'd taken that same stand last year.

Minnesota already has a version of this policy on the books, and it has worked well for them.

Let's hope an iteration of one of these bills passes and that Burgum is willing to sign it into law because he recognizes, too, the need for checks and balances. Even on the authority he wields.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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