BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum overstepped his authority on some vetoes he issued after the Legislature adjourned, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said Monday.
The state Constitution gives the governor power to veto provisions in a spending bill without rejecting the entire measure.
Republican House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo and his Senate counterpart, Rich Wardner, of Dickinson requested the attorney general’s opinion in May, questioning whether the governor could do line-item vetoes that change the Legislature’s intent. The letter asked Stenehjem for an “expedited” formal opinion.
In his opinion Monday, Stenehjem said the governor has the power to veto parts of an appropriation bill that are related to a vetoed appropriation, as long as the bill can still stand as workable legislation. But he said the governor can’t veto conditions or restrictions on appropriations without vetoing the appropriation itself.
By that reasoning, the attorney general said the governor’s vetoes of some sections of the North Dakota University System appropriation bill were not authorized. He also said Burgum was not authorized to veto some language in the State Water Commission and Department of University and School Lands appropriations, but that the language he vetoed in those two bills wouldn’t have stood up in court anyway.
Legislative leaders said Monday that they needed time to study the opinion before deciding whether to challenge the vetoes in court or try to override them.
Wardner acknowledged that some of the vetoed language was “kind of technical” and that some of the provisions weren’t even very important, but he thought a couple were. He said the Legislature can meet for only three more days this year and he’s not sure if lawmakers would want to use a day on the vetoes.
The Legislature adjourned April 27. Burgum vetoed parts of several spending bills less than a week afterward. His office said at the time the vetoes saved money while protecting executive branch authority.
Burgum issued a statement Monday night saying he believes the attorney general’s opinion supports the “overriding intent” of the vetoes. His statement did not clarify how the opinion furthers those goals.
Stenehjem, who lost to Burgum last year in the Republican primary for governor, is a former state senator. During the 1995 Legislature, he sponsored a rewrite of the Constitution that included a new section on the line-item veto.
Legislative Management, a 17-member panel of lawmakers that oversees business between sessions, could take the case to a judge. But the panel’s chairman, Grand Forks Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg, and said he would need a lot more information before deciding whether to challenge those vetoes in court.