Port: North Dakota's legislative leaders take credit for the work of other branches of government

Photo: Rich Wardner and Chet Pollert
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

MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota lawmakers usually like to complain about overreach from the executive branch or the federal government, as well they should. At times that overreach is real, and defending that branch of government's authority is part of the duty of serving in the Legislature.

Yet when the coronavirus pandemic hit home and hard policy choices were put before our state, the legislators have mostly chosen to hide under their desks. They have consistently rejected calls for a special session, leaving the hard work of governing in a crisis to Gov. Doug Burgum and the executive branch.

That is no slight to Burgum, his staff or the other elected officials leading statewide agencies. They've been doing their jobs and, for the most part, have done them well. But our system of government with its three separate but co-equal branches is not set up for them to work autonomously.

The Legislature should have engaged.

I think its leaders are beginning to understand that.


As evidence, consider this recent letter to the editor penned by House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, touting what they imagine to be some significant accomplishments of the Legislature concerning the dispersal of federal pandemic relief dollars.

The work of two men who feel they need to tell the public that they have been doing something lately.

"As we look ahead to fall and to the start of the 2021 legislative session, we would like to update the public on the incredible work being done to support North Dakota's citizens and businesses during this difficult time, as well as our goals for the future," they wrote.

They go on to tout funding for unemployment benefits and rent relief as if the Legislature had any hand in those decisions.

They didn't.

Not really.

Congress in Washington, D.C., initially appropriated the funds which come from the federal treasury. To the extent there was any in-state decision making with how those dollars are spent, the executive branch did it.

The Legislature's Budget Section Committee did meet and approve the executive branch decisions, as Pollert and Wardner note, but that's all they could legally do.


The Budget Section is not the Legislature and, thus, per our state constitution, cannot legislate. The lawmakers who served on that committee wielded a sort of veto over the executive branch's decisions, but they could not introduce any of their ideas.

They could not move dollars from one column for another, or nix funding they felt was unnecessary.

That sort of thing would be legislating, and by law legislating requires the full Legislature, not a mere committee.

Had Wardner and Pollert heeded calls for a special session, the full Legislature, including elected representatives covering every square inch of the state, could have weighed in on the disbursement of these dollars as well as other crucial pandemic-related policy questions facing our state.

They didn't, abdicating their responsibility to protect the authority of the branch of government they lead.

It's usually good politics to avoid the responsibility of making hard decisions but rarely is it good leadership.

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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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