BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum partially vetoed a bill late Friday, May 7, that aims to restrict North Dakota universities from partnering with abortion providers or supporters.
Burgum vetoed the part of Senate Bill 2030 that would penalize any of the state's 11 colleges and universities $2.8 million for such a partnership. He also nixed the portion of the bill that said a person who signs a contract with an abortion-supporting group would be criminally charged, with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.
However, Burgum signed the rest of the bill, affirming its provision that restricts North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota from partnering with abortion providers or supporters under the Higher Education Challenge Matching Grant. The grant awards NDSU and UND $1 in state funding for every $2 the universities' foundations raise in donations. If they were to partner with an abortion provider, they would no longer be able to receive the funds.
"North Dakota has strong pro-life policies, and our administration has a strong record of signing pro-life legislation into law," Burgum said in a letter to Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford explaining the partial veto. Burgum must send notice of bills signed or vetoed to the House majority leader or the Senate president, who is Sanford, said Mike Nowatzki, Burgum's spokesman.
Burgum cited the newly-enacted campus free speech bill, House Bill 1503, which he signed into law last month, as part of his reason for the partial veto of Senate Bill 2030, saying that the penalties "may be in direct conflict with House Bill 1503."
However, the North Dakota Legislative Council, after consulting with its attorneys, told The Forum last month that there is "no direct statutory conflict" between the two bills.
The North Dakota Legislature closed out the 2021 session on April 30. If lawmakers want to override Burgum's partial veto of Senate Bill 2030, the Senate and House majority leaders will have to call lawmakers back in for a special session.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, told The Forum on Saturday that the two chambers will not be called back unless they are sure they have the two-thirds majority needed to override the Republican governor's partial veto.
Wardner said he will reach out to senators to get their thoughts and only reconvene if the votes are there. Even though the Senate OK'd the bill with more than a two-thirds majority, Wardner said their votes may change in light of the partial veto.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert did not respond to a phone call Saturday seeking information on the House's stance on reconvening for a possible override.
On top of potential legal conflicts with the penalties in the bill, Burgum cited overreach in the part of the bill that said a state's attorney "shall prosecute" an individual for signing an agreement with an abortion provider or supporter, and that this provision takes away a prosecutor's discretion to pursue a case.
"Not surprisingly, leaders of our higher education institutions have shared that their faculty, researchers and grant officers are unwilling to take such a personal risk, thereby jeopardizing hundreds of millions of dollars in research funding and putting jobs, careers and faculty recruitment at severe risk across our university system," Burgum said in his letter.
In vetoing the part of the bill that would penalize all universities, not just NDSU and UND, Burgum said the penalties would adversely affect the state's smaller schools, saying the "$2.8 million fixed penalty also would disproportionately affect the university system's smaller institutions, representing an average of 15.3% of the total funding formula appropriation for the 2021-2023 biennium at nine of the system's 11 institutions."
Many in the North Dakota University System say the bill is an affront to the First Amendment and academic freedom and that it sets a precedent for the Legislature to intervene in university academics whenever they deem a topic as morally objectionable.
Lawmakers were clear in their discussions of the bill that it targets NDSU and its partnership with Planned Parenthood through a federal research grant. The grant, much to many of the lawmakers’ dissatisfaction, funds an evidence-based sex education program for at-risk youth that's administered by Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider.
Legislators who backed the bill said they repeatedly told NDSU administrators and faculty members to withdraw from the partnership with Planned Parenthood. But NDSU "thumbed their noses" at the request, which is why a penalty is needed, some lawmakers said.
More than 1,400 students, staff and faculty members statewide signed a petition against the penalties and abortion provisions in the bill. Several NDSU faculty members recently sent a letter to Burgum urging him to veto the bill, otherwise there would be negative consequences that would linger for “decades to come,” the letter said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.