BISMARCK — The mayors of North Dakota's 13 largest cities have spoken out in opposition to a legislative proposal brought by conservatives that would end the state's COVID-19 emergency declaration.

Republican Bismarck state Rep. Rick Becker has brought forth a resolution that would kill North Dakota's state of emergency and halt Gov. Doug Burgum's ability to issue wide-reaching executive orders. Burgum originally issued the crisis designation in mid-March after the coronavirus first penetrated the state.

Becker, the leader of the far-right Bastiat Caucus and a frequent critic of the governor, said operating under "a perpetual state of emergency is not a proper way to run government." The lawmaker added that the emergency designation tilts the balance of power too much toward the executive branch, and the Legislature should be more involved in making pandemic-related decisions.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, who signed a memo asking lawmakers not to pass Becker's resolution, said local leaders agree that "we don't have enough vaccine to take our foot off the gas." The governor can still react to pandemic developments faster than the Legislature and local governments, and taking away his emergency powers could hinder the state's recent progress in slowing spread of the virus, Mahoney said. He added that the emergency designation helps the state remain eligible for federal aid.

Other mayors who signed onto the memo include Brandon Bochenski of Grand Forks, Bernie Dardis of West Fargo and Steve Bakken of Bismarck.

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For his part, Burgum said at a press conference earlier this month it would be "absurd" to end the emergency declaration while the pandemic still poses serious public health and economic issues. Forty-nine states have an active state of emergency for COVID-19, according to the National Governors Association.

“Our emergency authority maintains the flexibility needed to implement and update protocols to ensure that we can continue to protect the most vulnerable, keep our schools and our economy open, as we continue to focus on rolling out the safe and extraordinarily effective vaccines," Burgum said in a statement.

The Republican governor has previously used emergency powers to issue occupancy restrictions on businesses, limitations on nursing home visitation and closures of schools and polling places, though none of those measures are still on the books. Burgum recently announced the end of a statewide mask mandate, but that order came from the state health officer and would not be affected by Becker's proposal.

Legislative Council Director John Bjornson said killing the state of emergency would jeopardize federal funding received by North Dakota for food stamps. Bjornson said his agency is still looking into whether other sources of federal money could be jeopardized by the move.

Becker acknowledged that the potential loss of food stamp funding could sink his proposal in the House of Representatives, but he said the governor could search for alternative means of getting the money from the federal government. If no other way presents itself, Becker said Burgum could just issue another state of emergency.

Rick Becker
Rick Becker