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Stenehjem: Lawmakers warned of panel’s spending authority

July 31, 2018

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem cautioned the Legislature for years that it was wrong to delegate legislative spending authority to a small panel of lawmakers.

They can’t afford to ignore him any longer.

The North Dakota Supreme Court on Monday agreed with Stenehjem that lawmakers ceded too much power by giving a subset of the Legislature budgetary decisions. The high court’s opinion followed a lawsuit filed by the Legislature against Republican Gov. Doug Burgum that also alleged he violated his line-item veto power last year by deleting words or phrases on spending bills in a way that changed intent.

The high court ruled that Burgum was out of line in four out of five line-item vetoes. But the ruling also said Burgum, who was represented by Stenehjem in the lawsuit, was right that the full Legislature must make spending decisions and not leave such decisions to the Budget Section.

The Budget Section has 42 members, compared to the 141 members of the Legislature. It includes legislative leaders and members of the House and Senate appropriations committees.

An unconstitutional example cited by the court was a $1.8 million information technology project that couldn’t be spent without the Budget Section’s OK. The high court ruled that “the Legislature has unconstitutionally encroached upon the executive and consolidated the power to both make and execute the laws into its own hands.”

The 36-page ruling largely mirrored an opinion Stenehjem authored last year before the lawsuit was filed.

“All in all, they adopted the opinion I issued,” Stenehjem said Tuesday. “If (lawmakers) want conditions or restrictions on money they appropriate, they should spell it out in legislation.”

A bipartisan panel of lawmakers voted in September to sue Burgum in the state Supreme Court. Lawmakers at the time generally were confident they would prevail in their argument that Burgum violated his veto powers by changing Legislative intent by changing words or phrases. However, many lawmakers were nervous about how the Supreme Court would rule on the Budget Section issue and didn’t want it part of the lawsuit.

Stenehjem said he saw problems with the Budget Section while serving in both the House and the Senate for about 25 years before being elected attorney general in 2000. “And it only got worse,” he said.

Stenehjem said similar attorney general opinions on the problems with the Budget Section date back more than 30 years but were never elevated to the state’s high court.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman said she respected the Supreme Court’s opinion and agreed that the Budget Section probably has “creeped out of its boundaries” in the past.

“We have to redefine those boundaries of what the Budget Section can and can’t do,” Heckaman said. “I think the Budget Section has a role but we need to stay within the boundaries of that role.”

Republican House Majority Leader Al Carlson said he plans to sponsor legislation that will further clarify the role of the Budget Section.

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