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North Dakota Legislature upholds state mask mandate ban; transgender sports bill veto sustained

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North Dakota House Majority Leader Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, second from left, gestures toward House Speaker Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, far right, prior to the start of Thursday's floor session and votes on whether to override three vetoes by Gov. Doug Burgum. Others listening are clockwise from left Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks; Rep. Scott Louser, R-Minot; Rep. Larry Bellew, R-Minot; and House Chief Clerk Buell Reich.

State-issued mask mandates will be banned under a bill vetoed by North Dakota's governor but upheld by the Legislature.

The House of Representatives and Senate voted Thursday on overriding Gov. Doug Burgum's vetoes on bills restricting mask mandates and transgender youth in sports, but only cleared the required two-thirds majority on the former. Burgum's veto on the latter was sustained.

The House needed 63 votes for overriding; the Senate needed 32.

Mask mandates

The House voted 66-27 to override the veto on House Bill 1323, brought by Rep. Jeff Hoverson, R-Minot, which bans state-issued mask mandates. The Senate later voted 32-15, the narrowest margin possible to overturn the veto. The bill takes effect as law Aug. 1.

Supporters said government should not be able to require mask-wearing. Opponents said the bill removes a tool for future situations.

Burgum in his Wednesday veto cited the latter, saying that "to strip future governors and their state health officers of any low-cost tool that might be used to save lives and livelihoods in a future pandemic or other emergency would be both irresponsible and an unnecessary risk to the future public health and well-being of North Dakota citizens."

Rep. Jason Dockter, R-Bismarck, told the House that "The mask mandate is a local control issue. Businesses also have the right to decide if they want a mask mandate or not."

Senate visitors clapped when Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford announced the override vote.

Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor had no comment on the override beyond his Wednesday veto message.

Interim State Health Officer Dirk Wilke imposed a statewide mask mandate last November amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases that taxed hospitals and funeral homes. The order, which Burgum supported, expired in January.

Active cases of the virus had reached more than 10,000 late last year, but they fell sharply in the period of the mask mandate. Many local governments around the state also implemented mask requirements last fall. Before the statewide mandate, the governor for months implored residents to wear face masks out of personal responsibility.

Transgender sports

The House voted 68-25 on overriding the veto on House Bill 1298, brought by Rep. Ben Koppelman, R-West Fargo. House Speaker Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, gaveled down balcony visitors who applauded the override. The Senate later in the day voted 28-19, sustaining the veto.

The bill would have restricted transgender girls in K-12 sports by banning public elementary and secondary schools from "knowingly" allowing a student to participate on a school-sponsored athletic team exclusively for their opposite sex. The bill would have allowed girls to play on boys sports teams.

Supporters said the bill ensured fairness in girls sports. Opponents said it discriminated against transgender youth and risked inviting litigation and repelling sports tourism.

Burgum in his Wednesday veto cited "a level playing field and fairness in girls' sports" already in North Dakota, due to "the caring and thoughtful leadership" of the North Dakota High Schools Activities Association, which has a transgender student board regulation.

The North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, Tri-State Transgender and American Civil Liberties Union all commended Burgum for his veto on Wednesday.

The Concerned Women for America of North Dakota said Burgum "was wrong to disregard the hard-fought opportunities for high school female athletes" in Title IX, a 1972 federal law that protects people from sex-based discrimination in school programs and activities that receive federal money. The organization called on the Legislature to override the veto.

Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, called the bill "very clean, neat and specific."

"This is strictly and narrowly defined for those high school sports that are exclusively male or exclusively female," Weisz told the House.

Other states have recently passed legislation restricting transgender athletes, including Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. Idaho passed a similar law but a federal judge blocked it last year.

The North Dakota High School Activities Association told the Tribune it opposed the bill. The association has a  transgender student board regulation that states:

  • Any transgender student who is not taking hormone treatment related to gender transition may participate in a sex-separated interscholastic contest in accordance with the sex assigned to him or her at birth.
  • A trans male (female to male) student who has undergone treatment with testosterone for gender transition may compete in a contest for boys but is no longer eligible to compete in a contest for girls.
  • A trans female (male to female) student being treated with testosterone suppression medication for gender transition may continue to compete in a contest for boys but may not compete in a contest for girls until completing one calendar year of documented testosterone-suppression treatment.

Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, who has pushed for the bill throughout the legislative session, said the association should not be the one to bring a policy; only the Legislature can.

"This bill is needed because the Legislature, frankly, is the appropriate way and the appropriate body to make a policy to oppose such far-reaching consequences," she told the Senate.

Some balcony visitors clapped after the vote. Others quietly booed. 

The House failed to override Burgum's March 31 veto on House Bill 1378, which would have allowed the Legislature to convene in December of even-numbered years to consider and vote on legislation. That's the time when the Legislature holds its organizational session to prepare for the regular session beginning the next month. The vote fell 32-61.

Burgum said introducing and voting on bills and resolutions is beyond the scope of the December organizational session.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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