North Dakota legislative leaders have requested an attorney general’s opinion on whether Gov. Doug Burgum overstepped his constitutional authority on several vetoes he issued after the Legislature adjourned in late April.
Rep. Al Carlson and Sen. Rich Wardner, the Republican majority leaders in their respective chambers, sent a letter to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem Wednesday requesting his opinion on a handful of Burgum’s vetoes.
“Because of the time-sensitive nature of the questions presented, we would appreciate your expedited review of our request,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, Legislative Council staff already concluded that Burgum may have exceeded his authority on at least some of those vetoes, according to a memo provided to Forum News Service Wednesday that outlines relevant court cases and previous opinions.
Burgum announced less than a week after the Legislature adjourned on April 27 that he had vetoed at least parts of nine bills.
The majority leaders’ letter came a day after two legislative leaders expressed doubts that lawmakers would reconvene to address Burgum’s vetoes. They adjourned on the 77th day of the regular session, which is limited to 80 days every two years.
Grand Forks Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg, chairman of Legislative Management, said the AG opinion is on “a separate track” than the decision on whether to call lawmakers back to Bismarck. Legislative Management, the committee that would decide whether to reconvene, has a meeting scheduled for May 31.
Wardner said they sought the opinion for informational purposes.
“We’d like to know if they are constitutional,” he said. Once the AG opinion is issued, “we’ll make a decision after that if we’re going to do anything or not.”
Wardner said lawmakers don’t have any days to waste if they want to return and address other issues. Asked about what other options lawmakers might have to address the vetoes, Wardner said “you could take the governor … to the Supreme Court,” but he quickly noted that he’s not interested in that route at this time.
Carlson didn’t return a message seeking comment late Wednesday afternoon.
The majority leaders’ letter questions whether the governor can veto a portion of a sentence in an appropriation bill that changes the intent of the legislation. They pointed to vetoes in the budget bills for higher education, the Department of Commerce and the State Water Commission.
The legislative leaders also asked whether Burgum could veto “a condition or restriction on an appropriation” without vetoing the appropriation itself. They again cited the higher education, Department of Commerce and State Water Commission bills, along with the budget for the state Department of Land Trusts.
Finally, Carlson and Wardner questioned whether it’s a constitutional violation for the Legislature to create interim committees to study state employee health insurance and to monitor state revenues and state economic activity.
“Many of the partial vetoes attempt to eliminate conditions or restrictions on appropriations, strike language that is not separate and distinct from the rest of the bill, change the legislative purpose of appropriations bills, and, in effect, legislate from the executive branch,” the Legislative Council memo states.
The governor’s office defended the vetoes Wednesday.
"Gov. Burgum exercised his veto authority very thoughtfully and with great respect for the separation of powers,” the governor’s spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, said in a statement. “His intent was to preserve executive branch authority to ensure the ability to operate state government as effectively and efficiently as possible while prioritizing spending at a time when fiscal restraint is essential."