BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota legislators may be having second thoughts about suing the new governor over his veto powers, concerned that a costly legal battle could crowd out other legislative business if the state Supreme Court tells the two Republican-led branches to settle the dispute politically.
The Legislature adjourned on April 27, and Gov. Doug Burgum used his line-item veto during the following week to change parts of several spending bills. Legislators contend he violated his veto powers by deleting words or phrases that would have changed the intent and threatened to launch what would be the first state Supreme Court challenge over vetoes in nearly four decades.
Grand Forks GOP Sen. Ray Holmberg, who heads a committee of 17 lawmakers that oversees the Legislature's business between sessions, acknowledged there are fears about the price tag as well as the calendar.
"Is it worth it?" Holmberg said.
Returning to session over vetoes would cost an estimated $80,000 a day, not including legal costs, and lawmakers have already met for 77 of the maximum 80 days allowed under the state constitution. That means all the remaining time could be absorbed by the veto spat.
Lawmakers hoped to bank the three days as a cushion if they need to react to any continuing declines in state revenue or federal policy changes.
The bipartisan Legislative Management Committee voted unanimously in June to pursue the litigation, believing Burgum overstepped his authority and curtailed the Legislature's power.
House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo, the vice chairman of the committee, said it should cost no more than $20,000 to defend the Legislature's interests in the case, with the help of a private attorney.
"This is a big deal — this is about defending the Legislature and not allowing legislation to happen with a veto pen," Carlson said. "We need to get this resolved and in my opinion, it needs to be resolved through the court."
Another vote is necessary to set the details of a lawsuit before filing directly to the state Supreme Court. Holmberg has not set another meeting.
"We're waiting for call of chair and what the costs would be and what we're going to do," Carlson said.
Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said if a lawsuit is filed, "we would coordinate our efforts with the attorney general's office and outside council would be a possibility."
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who was Burgum's rival in last year's GOP primary, issued an opinion in May that says Burgum overstepped his authority on some vetoes. Stenehjem is a former state senator and during the 1995 Legislature he sponsored a rewrite of the constitution that included a new section on the line-item veto.
The state Supreme Court has considered a dispute over the governor's line-item veto power once, in 1979, pitting Attorney General Allen Olson against Gov. Arthur Link. It involved the Legislature's attempt to abolish some state planning and economic divisions, replacing them with the lieutenant governor, who would serve as a federal aid coordinator.
The Supreme Court said that Link's line-item veto was invalid, but sided with his argument that the Legislature interfered with his powers by telling the lieutenant governor what to do.
John Bjornson, an attorney for the Legislative Council, the Legislature's research arm, said that case would be cited if a lawsuit is brought. Bjornson said no veto disputes have risen to the high court level since, and may not have occurred any other time in state history.
"It may happen in other states but it is rare in North Dakota," he said.
Bjornson said he has been meeting privately with legislative leaders and a trio of Republican lawmakers who also are attorneys to craft a strategy for a potential lawsuit. He and Carlson said there has been interest from some private attorneys to intervene in the lawsuit if it happens.