BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers have superseded Gov. Doug Burgum's veto of legislation that will give a select group of lawmakers more authority to divvy up federal funds that come in between biennial legislative sessions.
The Republican-led House of Representatives voted 75-11 on Wednesday, April 28, to override the second-term governor's rejection of Senate Bill 2290 a day after the Senate took the same action. The bill will become law immediately, but it could be the subject of a renewed legal battle between Burgum and the Legislature.
The new law will allow the Budget Section, a 42-member panel of lawmakers that meets between sessions, to overrule the Emergency Commission in dividing up incoming federal allocations of $3 million or more. The six-member commission, which includes the governor, the secretary of state and four top legislators, had significant authority last year over the state's rationing of a $1.25 billion federal coronavirus relief package amongst agencies and programs. During that process, the panel of lawmakers only got an up-or-down vote on appropriations approved by the commission.
The legislation, sponsored by Minot Republican Sen. David Hogue, also requires the governor to call lawmakers in for a special session if the total amount of federal funds doled out by the commission and Budget Section exceeds $50 million during the two-year budget cycle.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the bill is "very problematic" and "would be difficult to defend against a constitutional challenge."
Underneath the battle over the bill lies a struggle for power between the executive and legislative branches that began shortly after Burgum took office in 2017. The tug-of-war has intensified during the current legislative session as lawmakers try to rein in the governor's authority after Burgum and his administration dominated top-level decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Burgum said he vetoed the bill because it "clearly violates the separation of powers doctrine" and tries to force him to call lawmakers into a special session when they already know the state is due to receive much more than $50 million over the next two years via President Joe Biden's recently approved coronavirus stimulus package. The state is due to receive more than $1 billion in spending money from the package, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
The Republican governor said the Legislature's delegation of spending power to the microcosmic panel was already deemed unconstitutional by the highest court in the state. After lawmakers sued Burgum in 2018 over a veto-related dispute, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature had granted too much lawmaking authority to the panel.
The Legislature has now overturned two of Burgum's four vetoes, including a bill barring state officials from issuing mask mandates.