BISMARCK — Some North Dakota Republican lawmakers are looking to limit the governor’s emergency powers after a high volume of executive orders approved by Gov. Doug Burgum during the coronavirus pandemic rubbed many conservatives the wrong way.
A sweeping bill sponsored by Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, would constrict the governor’s wide-ranging emergency authority. North Dakota has been in a continuous state of emergency for the pandemic since Burgum ordered one on March 13.
Under the proposal, Senate Bill 2124:
A state of emergency called by the governor would be capped at 30 days.
The governor may extend a state of emergency for another 30 days, but only after calling the Legislature in for a special session.
The Legislature could end a state of emergency, which would prevent the governor from declaring a new one over the same issue.
When a state of emergency is stopped by the Legislature, any related executive orders cease to be effective.
Several attempts to limit the governor’s emergency powers are already in the offing this session. They come in the wake of a string of nearly 40 pandemic-related orders issued by Burgum and his cabinet that include a statewide mask mandate and business restrictions. The extraordinary measures have been heavily criticized by some lawmakers and residents.
Still, Myrdal said her bill isn’t aimed at Burgum.
“This is not about this particular governor or about this particular disease,” she said. “It’s about the fact that we realized there are some gaps in our laws that made the people not be fully represented.”
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said attempts to rein in the governor’s authority to issue executive orders certainly stem from some dismay among lawmakers with the Burgum-backed mask order and restrictions on restaurants and bars.
Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki didn’t comment on the merits of Myrdal’s bill but said the governor is aware of multiple bills that aim to reform the office’s emergency powers.
“We understand this is going to be a topic of discussion during the session,” Nowatzki said in a statement. “The governor looks forward to working closely with legislative leaders — just as he has during the pandemic — to find the right balance for North Dakota that ensures the ability to continue to respond quickly and effectively to complex weather, economic and health-related emergencies and disasters.”
Coming into the session, top Republicans in both chambers said old laws had allowed the governor too much latitude in his response to the pandemic. Both Pollert and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, noted that recalibrating the governor’s emergency authority is an overdue correction of the separation of powers. The Legislature originally granted the executive branch more control during a state of emergency in 1987 as a reaction to a measles outbreak in Grand Forks.
“We gave away a lot of authority in the late 1980s, and I do agree that we need to go through this process because the Legislature needs to take some of that authority back,” Pollert said.
“If we’d have realized this (pandemic) was coming, we’d have corrected it last session,” Wardner said.
House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said his caucus’s main concern is gaining a higher level of involvement in doling out emergency funding, which is barely addressed in Myrdal’s bill.
The all-Republican Emergency Commission, which includes the governor, sliced up North Dakota’s $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding unilaterally, and more lawmakers should’ve gotten a say in how that massive amount of money was spent, Boschee said.
The Democratic-NPL Party called for a special session to make spending decisions over last summer only to be shut down by Republican leaders.
Myrdal predicted broad support for her bill among Senate members. Wardner said the bill is “a good compromise” between the executive and legislative branches.
However, Myrdal’s proposal isn’t the only one lawmakers will consider. Pollert said he expects to see five or six more House bills looking to limit the governor’s emergency authority.
Rep. Bill Devlin, R-Finley, has already put forth a separate proposal, House Bill 1118, that would limit the governor’s emergency declarations to 60 days unless the Legislature approves extensions.
Myrdal said she aims to fast-track her legislation to get it in front of Burgum as soon as possible and added that she would be “surprised” if the governor vetoed it.
“I think this would be helpful for the governor,” she said. “It’s been a tough year for him. It’s been a tough year for North Dakotans.”
A hearing for Myrdal's bill is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday, Jan. 11.