Panel delays funding requests due to law that sets limits

June 16, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A commission that reviews emergency spending requests said Wednesday that it would not approve the allocation of millions of federal dollars sought by North Dakota agencies, due to a state law that limits the panel’s spending to $50 million each two-year legislative cycle.

The six-member Emergency Commission, headed by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, approved three requests totaling $2.8 million but did not act on others, including human services programs, that would have exceeded the new threshold. Instead, the panel will count on the full Legislature to take up the requests later this year.

State Office of Management and Budget Director Joe Morrissette said none of the delayed requests would result in loss of funds and would have only a minimal impact in some cases.

The GOP-led Legislature passed the law in April after the state received $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding last year. The commission alone largely determined how the money would be spent, angering many lawmakers, who believed the full body should have that responsibility.

The commission is comprised of the governor, the secretary of state, the chairmen of the state House and Senate appropriations committees, and the majority leaders of the House and Senate.

The new law requires the governor to call a special legislative session for expenditures above $50 million.

The Legislature easily overrode Burgum’s veto of the bill that he said “clearly violates the separation of powers doctrine” and would be unconstitutional.

Wednesday’s meeting of the emergency commission was the first since the law was enacted, and revealed confusion on how to apply it in some cases. Burgum said it showed the new law has “constraints” and could result in “unintended consequences.”

Kim Konikow, executive director of the North Dakota Council on the Arts, worried that delaying approval of the funds could limit agencies from seeking grants. The governor said that was a fair point.

The new law also allows the Legislature’s Budget Section to alter decisions made by the emergency commission. The Budget Section comprises the chambers’ floor leaders and the members of appropriations committees, which are in charge of crafting state agency budgets.

Burgum has said the $50 million “trigger” that would force the governor to call a special session would risk violating the state constitution by having the Legislature meet for more than the 80 days it’s allowed every two years.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has said the new law may not survive a court challenge. Stenehjem said the governor was “well within his constitutional authority“ to veto the bill and that he thought the new law would be difficult to defend “from a constitutional aspect.”

Burgum declined to say Wednesday if he would challenge the law in court.

The Legislature adjourned in April after meeting for 76 days. The Legislature will use the four remaining days it is allowed later in the year to take up the requests, along with approval of new legislative districts and other issues that may arise.