There was little love lost at the state Capitol on Valentine’s Day as a multi-ring match made tag-team wrestling look like phys-ed amateur hour.
Leading off was the long-standing grudge match between the executive and legislative branches designed by the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia a few years ago. They thought it was safer to have two adversarial branches fighting for power than to have two co-conspirators cooperating against the public good.
In North Dakota, governors have always bowed and scraped to the Legislature. In the beginning, there was little doubt the Legislature was running the state when there was very little in the state to run.
Government reaches executive age: But the world got complex and a 60-day biennial session didn’t get the job done. The Legislature stretched itself to do what absolutely had to be done and surrendered the rest to the executive branch. Because government has reached the executive age, governors have been able to go toe-to-toe with the Legislature.
Gov. Doug Burgum has not been timid going toe-to-toe, vetoing bills, meddling in legislative elections and issuing emergency declarations.
This Legislature is especially miffed because the executive branch took charge of emergency powers to fight the COVID that was killing North Dakotans. Of course, the Legislature wanted to be a part of the big crisis but had no role because it meets every other year.
Legislature could meet yearly: The state constitution already permits legislative sessions at different times of the biennium, but an annual session would mess up the vacations of legislators who want to lie on the beach in California every other year.
In another ring is Burgum, who bought Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s turn at the governor’s chair. This made waves in a state that considers it poor etiquette to break through the normal lines of succession. And he did it with big bucks from selling his computer world for a billion or so. North Dakota doesn’t cotton to wasting money on politics.
In still another ring is Senate Bill 2124, expressing a grump against being told in a governor’s emergency declaration to wear a mask, wash both hands and keep a distance. This bill was a manifestation of North Dakota’s frontier disposition of “leave me alone; I have my own haywire.”
So at the bottom of this bill is resentment against the health people who warned that people would die if we didn’t do something. And some did die. We could tell a fight was brewing when state health officers decided to resign instead of pretend the COVID thing was all a hoax.
The masked against the unmasked: So SB 2124 outlawing governor’s emergency declarations have turned out to be a subtle struggle between the masked and the unmasked. There is little doubt that any form of mask requirements was going to ignite an explosion. The election returns showed that those in sympathy with the unmasked far outnumbered the masked. That put the governor in the crosshairs of the malcontents.
Joining the hoax group was Attorney General Stenehjem, who joined 18 other Republican attorneys general in protesting the result of the 2020 election. But there was no election hoax. I am sure other state secretaries were as honest in the election as our Secretary of State Al Jaeger and all the votes were honestly cast and counted.
So the best we can say about tranquility at the State Capitol during this month of love and kisses is that there will be no love or kisses. The Legislature will fight the executive; the supermajority of Republicans in the Legislature will bully the governor; conservative Republican legislators will fight the more conservative Republican legislators and, by the end of the session, no one will be wearing masks but they will all be keeping their social distance.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.