North Dakota lawmakers sue Gov. Doug Burgum over vetoes

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Posted: Dec 08, 2017 1:21 PM
North Dakota lawmakers sue Gov. Doug Burgum over vetoes

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Legislature filed a lawsuit Friday against Gov. Doug Burgum, alleging he overstepped his authority on some vetoes he issued.

The Republican-led Legislature adjourned on April 27 and the first-term GOP governor vetoed parts of several spending bills less than a week afterward. Legislators argue that Burgum went beyond his powers by deleting words or phrases in a way that changed intent.

Burgum has defended the vetoes, saying they saved the state money while protecting his executive branch authority. He reemphasized that Friday, calling the lawsuit "disappointing" and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

"We will respond accordingly and firmly to any attempt to infringe on executive branch authority," Burgum's said in a statement.

The lawsuit asks the state Supreme Court to determine the legal effect of the partial vetoes, including the current status of each affected bill.

A bipartisan panel of North Dakota lawmakers voted in September to sue Burgum over his veto powers, saying its aim is to protect the integrity of the Legislature. The lawsuit filed Friday is the first challenge over vetoes to come before the state's highest court in nearly four decades.

Republican state House Majority Leader Al Carlson, a member of the bipartisan Legislative Management Committee, said Friday that a governor may not "legislate with his pen."

Carlson said the Legislature is asking the state's high court to determine "a clear understanding of the separation of powers" because the issue could come up again.

"Win or lose, we need to clear this up." he said.

The state constitution gives the governor "line-item" veto authority on spending measures. Lawmakers question whether the governor can veto parts of sentences in appropriation bills that change their legislative intent.

Burgum signed 440 bills in the session. He vetoed three bills entirely and made line-item vetoes in 10 others.

The nonpartisan Legislative Council, which is the Legislature's research arm, has said Burgum altered legislation on spending bills at least four times, including a three-word phrase forbidding a university from cutting "any portion of" a nursing program.

In a written opinion, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the governor has the power to veto parts of an appropriation bill that are related to a vetoed appropriation, as long as the bill can still stand as workable legislation. But he said the governor can't veto conditions or restrictions on appropriations without vetoing the appropriation itself.

By that reasoning, he said the governor's vetoes of some sections of the North Dakota University System appropriation bill were not valid. He also said Burgum was not authorized to veto some language in the State Water Commission and Department of University and School Lands appropriations.

Two private Bismarck attorneys, Randall Bakke and Shawn Grinolds, were hired to file and defend the lawsuit.

Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor has not decided whether to use his general counsel or to hire a private attorney to fight the lawsuit.