For the first time in state history, the Legislative body went into executive session, barring the public from their discussion. The closed-door meeting allowed the Legislative Management Committee to hear from outside legal counsel and ask questions about how to proceed in litigation against Governor Doug Burgum. Following the executive session, Legislators voted 12-4 to sue Governor Doug Burgum.
The decision to sue the Governor comes after Burgum line-item vetoed a number of legislative bills following the adjournment of the Legislature earlier this year. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem then issued an opinion that gave credence to both sides of the argument. After the AG opinion which both sides used as evidence of being in the right, many thought this was simply a power struggle between House Majority Leader Al Carlson and new Governor Doug Burgum. If that’s the case, Carlson whooped Burgum in this round.
What does this mean for taxpayers? Tens of thousands of dollars will be spent on litigation between the Governor and the Legislature. The exact amount is unknown and will be determined by how Burgum responds. Estimates I’ve heard are anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000. A unique expense given the dramatic budget cuts of the last legislative session.
However, the lawsuit is not without merit. The litigation would provide certainty as to the authority of the Governor to line-item veto and veto partial sentences that could change the intent of the Legislature. It will provide a guide for future Governors and set firm the separation of powers in North Dakota government.
On the flip side, people close to the situation have said Burgum is ready to challenge the constitutionality of some legislative functions. There has been a question in the past as to whether or not the interim Budget Section Committee of the Legislature would uphold a legal challenge. Backed into a corner, will Burgum challenge the broad authority of this committee when it comes to spending? If so, how will it impact state spending on emergencies and other items in between full Legislative sessions?
This lawsuit will likely send ripples throughout the North Dakota Republican Party. The contested GOP Primary for Governor between Wayne Stenehjem and Doug Burgum soured a lot of GOP Legislators on Burgum. Stenehjem was “their guy.” The bitterness rolled over into the Legislative session with Republican lawmakers saying Burgum was in over his head and nowhere to be found. Their words, not mine. This legal challenge is to solidify separation of powers, but make no mistake that it is also to put Burgum in check. Buckle up folks, the back room bitterness is about to be publicly displayed and your tax dollars are paying for it.