Lawmakers dismiss criticism of emergency spending law
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota legislative leaders on Tuesday dismissed criticism of a new limits on emergency spending by a governor-led panel, saying they have no interest in repealing or amending the law.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said in an interview that criticism that the new law could hamper the state’s ability to address emergency spending is unwarranted.
“I don’t think this is a life or death thing,” Wardner said. “We can live with this.”
The law, passed shortly before the Republican-led Legislature adjourned in April, effectively furthers an ongoing battle between Gov. Doug Burgum and the Legislature, which has long argued that it decides spending matters and the second-term Republican has stepped too far onto its turf. The Legislature easily overrode Burgum’s veto of the bill that he said “clearly violates the separation of powers doctrine” and would be unconstitutional.
Burgum has declined to say if he would challenge the law in court.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman said in an interview that she supports the law.
“It is OK for us to do this,” she said. “Otherwise, we don’t know what’s being spent where.”
The Legislature passed the bill after the Emergency Commission, headed by Burgum, largely determined how to spend $1.2 billion in federal coronavirus relief the state received last year. Many lawmakers believed the full body should have that responsibility.
Burgum has said the spending limits would force the governor to call a special session, which would risk violating the state constitution by having the Legislature meet for more than the 80 days it’s allowed every two years.
The law caps the Emergency Commission’s spending authority of federal funds to $50 million and to just $5 million in so-called special funds in a two-year budget cycle. The six-member Emergency Commission approved only a handful of requests but did not act on others, including human services programs, that would have exceeded the new threshold. Instead, the panel will count on the Legislature to take up the requests later this year in a reconvened or special session.
The new law also allows a subset of the Legislature known as the Budget Section to alter decisions made by the Emergency Commission. The 42-member panel did that Wednesday, cutting one of the five emergency spending requests approved last week by the commission.
The Budget Section comprises the House and Senate floor leaders and the members of appropriations committees, which are in charge of crafting state agency budgets. It often meets between sessions to handle legislative business. The Emergency Commission includes the secretary of state, the chairmen of the state House and Senate appropriations committees, and the majority leaders of the House and Senate, in addition to the governor.
State Office of Management and Budget Director Joe Morrissette has said none of the delayed requests would result in loss of funds and would have only a minimal impact in some cases.
While legislative leaders have yet to show an appetite for changing or scrapping the new law, a legislative committee has been assigned to study it, and will present a recommendation to the Legislature when it meets again this year.
The Legislature adjourned in April after meeting for 76 days. The Legislature will use its four allowed remaining days to take up the requests, along with approval of new legislative districts and any other issues that arise.