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Omdahl: Governor stands up to Legislature’s power grab

By Staff | May 12, 2017

In a sweeping display of executive authority, Governor Doug Burgum peeled off a series of vetoes at the end of the recent legislative session in which he defended the integrity of the executive branch against the chronic encroachment by the legislative branch.

Perhaps in his general studies, the governor was forewarned in Federalist No. 28 in which James Madison noted that “The legislative branch is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.”

In his veto of section of SB 2001 creating a new legislative revenue advisory committee, the governor pointed out that it usurped the governor’s constitutional authority to analyze and optimize the work of agencies and that a new committee would encroach on that responsibility and also result in duplication of effort.

In his veto of sections of HB 1023 expanding legislative authority in the Public Employees Retirement System, the governor pointed out that this authority was in the PERS Board of Trustees and the Legislature already had plenty of input.

In his veto of portions of HB1020 requiring the State Water Commission to get the approval of the Legislative Management Committee for fund transfers, the governor said that this would interfere in the work of the Commission, an agency of the executive branch.

In his veto of portions of HB 2013 requiring the Board of University and School Lands to get approval of a legislative interim budget committee, the governor said that this would interfere in the proper management of this executive agency.

In his veto of SB 2119 micromanaging leases in state-owned buildings, the governor stated flatly that “the responsibility for execution and administration of state business lies exclusively within the executive branch of state government”

The Governor even went to bat for the Board of Higher Education something the Board has been failing to do – when he vetoed the sections of SB 2003 that intruded upon the constitutional authority of the Board.

And for good measure he vetoed a portion of SB 2016 in which the Legislature appropriated $25,000 for a study of state office space.

“It is unnecessary to expend $25,000 to narrowly study the cost effective uses of a single state property,” he wrote bluntly.

As Madison suggested, it is in the very nature of the legislative branch to expand its jurisdiction so we shouldn’t be surprised to see it happening in the North Dakota state capitol.

Actually, the relationship between state legislatures and executive branches has been in transition for the past 100 years. For the first hundred years, legislatures dominated policymaking in state governments. North Dakota was no exception.

But as America’s economic, social and political networks evolved it became evident that bodies of 100 or so legislators could not continue to run both branches of government. So legislatures moved to annual and longer sessions.

Nevertheless, the need for executive management grew.

This was demonstrated in North Dakota by the struggle with budgeting. Prior to the 1960s, the Legislature would divide itself into committees to travel to the state institutions to piece together a state budget. By the 1960s, this became untenable and the executive budget was initiated.

To some, this may appear to be a minor step but it placed the power of the purse in the governor’s hands. In a “hurry-up” biennial session, the Legislature has time only to add or subtract from the executive budget, meaning the governor sets the priorities and the agenda.

Because of Burgum’s strong private executive background, he will likely to continue to assert executive leadership in a manner that will protect the constitutional role of the executive branch. For the Legislature, it will be a fascinating ride.

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.

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