BISMARCK, N.D. — A bipartisan panel of North Dakota lawmakers voted Thursday to sue first-term Gov. Doug Burgum over his veto powers, saying its aim is to protect the integrity of the Legislature.
The Legislative Management Committee voted 12-4 to pursue the lawsuit in North Dakota’s Supreme Court, which would make it the first challenge over vetoes in the state’s highest court in nearly four decades.
Grand Forks GOP Sen. Ray Holmberg, who heads the committee of lawmakers that oversees the Republican-led Legislature’s business between sessions, said he didn’t expect the lawsuit to be filed for “months.”
The dispute centers on Burgum’s use of his line-item veto d to change parts of several spending bills. Legislators contend he violated his veto powers by deleting words or phrases that would have changed the intent. He used his veto powers a week after the Legislature adjourned on April 27.
Burgum, who is also a Republican, said a lawsuit would be a waste of money. He said his office will “respond accordingly to any legal action that attempts to infringe on executive branch authority.”
The decision to sue came after the committee met for about an hour behind closed doors with private attorneys to talk about litigation strategy. It likely was the first time that North Dakota lawmakers have closed a public meeting to discuss any issue.
“We are making history today,” Holmberg said.
Burgum signed 440 bills in the session. He vetoed three bills entirely and made line-item vetoes in 10.
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 his veto message, Burgum called the phrase ambiguous.
“This is all about protecting the legislative branch of government,” said Republican House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo, the vice chairman of the committee.
“No one can spend money except us,” Carlson said. “No one can pass laws except us.”
The Legislative Council estimated the cost of the lawsuit at about $34,000, including $2,000 already spent on Bismarck attorneys Randall Bakke and Shawn Grinolds for consultation.
The state constitution gives the governor power to veto provisions in a spending bill without rejecting the entire measure. Carlson and Republican Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner of Dickinson requested an attorney general’s opinion in May, questioning whether the governor could veto parts of appropriation bills in ways that change the legislative intent.
Wardner, who voted against pursuing the lawsuit, believed the “integrity of the Legislature is in question here,” but worried that the Legislature was on “thin ice” and may not prevail in the state’s high court. He said he preferred calling lawmakers back to Bismarck to address the vetoes.
Returning to session would cost an estimated $80,000 a day, not including legal costs.
Most others believed the state Supreme Court needs to settle the dispute because the issue could come up again.
“I think we need clarity for the people of North Dakota,” Fargo Democratic Rep. Kathy Hogan said.
Burgum’s relationship with the Legislature was testy even before he took office. The former Microsoft executive ran an outsider campaign for governor, angering legislators with TV ads claiming they had squandered much of the state’s oil bounty and criticizing what he called the “good old boy” establishment.
He bucked party tradition and ran against longtime Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, the Republican establishment’s preferred candidate. Burgum won the primary easily before winning the general election in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in more than a quarter-century.
Burgum and the Legislature mostly agreed on spending priorities during the session, though friction was evident at times, especially during a fight over a bill limiting a governor’s ability to set salary bonuses for staff. Burgum won that veto fight with the Legislature by arguing the legislation improperly infringes on the executive branch.