Burgum vetoes bill barring mask mandates by state officials

April 22, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Republican Gov. Doug Burgum and the GOP-controlled Legislature renewed their longstanding power struggle Wednesday, with the second-term governor vetoing a bill that would prohibit state officials from mandating face coverings.

In his veto message, Burgum said North Dakota law assigns the governor the responsibility to “minimize or avert the adverse effects of a disaster or emergency.”

“To strip future governors and their state health officers of any low-cost tool that might be used to save lives and livelihoods in a future pandemic or other emergency would be both irresponsible and unnecessary risk to the future public health and well-being of North Dakota citizens,” Burgum wrote.

Lawmakers have sought to give the Legislature more oversight of executive branch action, due to a rash of executive orders filed by Burgum in the past year, most in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill received broad support in both legislative chambers, with a 67-24 vote in the House and a 30-17 vote in the Senate. It wasn’t clear Wednesday if it could get the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override.

Bill sponsors have argued there was no proof that masks work to slow the spread of the coronavirus and they questioned the government’s role in mandating them.

Separately Wednesday, Burgum signed legislation that limits emergency or disaster declarations and allow the Legislature more oversight of the executive branch action.

The governor called the endorsement a “compromise.”

The measure “is an erosion of executive authority in reaction to an extremely challenging year of responding to a global pandemic, during which we were in frequent contact with legislative leaders and members,” Burgum said in a statement. “While we believe the current system worked well, this bill represents a compromise that allows for broader legislative involvement in future statewide health emergencies that affect all North Dakotans.”

Burgum filed some 45 executive orders in 2020, from requiring face coverings to imposing business in an effort to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus as it stressed the state’s hospital capacity.

The state health officer, backed by Burgum, imposed a mask mandate in November after months of refraining from such an order, hoping to stem a coronavirus surge that had been among the worst in the U.S. and threatened to overwhelm the state’s hospitals.

Burgum dropped the statewide mask requirement as well as limits on the number of people who gather in restaurants, bars and event venues about two months later, citing a dramatic drop in active COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations due to the coronavirus.

Also Wednesday, Burgum announced he will lift the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration at the end of the month as the state is changing its focus to increasing vaccination rates.

Burgum issued the order in March 2020, two days after North Dakota confirmed its first case of the coronavirus. A week later he ordered people to stay out of bars, restaurants, health clubs, movie theaters and other large-scale venues.

Burgum said the decision to lift the emergency shows the progress the state has made in protecting its most vulnerable residents, preserving hospital capacity and making vaccines available to all residents. Nearly 70% of North Dakotans ages 65 years and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine and 64% are fully vaccinated.

North Dakota health officials on Wednesday confirmed 178 new cases of the coronavirus, nine new hospitalizations and two new deaths. More than 106,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and 1,484 have died since the start of the pandemic.

The state currently has no enforced business or event protocols related to COVID-19, though local measures or orders may still be in place. A statewide mask requirement issued on Nov. 18 was lifted on Jan. 18.

The North Dakota Legislature two years ago handed Burgum his first veto setback since taking office. Burgum had vetoed a bill that defines the authority of a group of legislators known as the budget section.

Burgum argued spending authority was improperly delegated to the group, which consists of 42 of the Legislature’s 141 members who meet between sessions.

A similar fight in 2017 ended up in the North Dakota’s Supreme Court. The high court agreed that the Legislature had ceded too much power to the budget section.