North Dakota lawmakers are scrambling to fill a giant hole in state government operations left by a surprising state Supreme Court ruling that voided a major budget bill, leaving uncertainty until a resolution is reached.
Lawmakers might be back at the state Capitol as soon as the week of Oct. 23 for a three- to five-day session, Republican Senate Majority Leader David Hogue told The Associated Press.
The court’s surprising Sept. 28 decision put funding for parts of the state government in jeopardy, with a session likely to pull Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, who is running for president, off the campaign trail to focus on the legislation.
The court on Thursday issued a subsequent opinion denying the Republican-controlled Legislature’s requested delay of the court’s decision. The court also rescinded a previous stay that a majority of the justices had apparently granted until Oct. 28 — a move the state’s attorney general decried on Friday.
“They reverse themselves from two weeks ago — now it’s going to be done the painful way with a lot of anxiety for state employees and people throughout the government,” North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley told the AP.
Burgum has directed state agencies not to retrieve previously spent or transferred money in the bill unless further directed, and to pause work on any of its expenditures, transfers or policies not yet implemented “until a resolution is reached.” It wasn’t immediately clear what is affected.
North Dakota’s Legislature is part-time, usually meeting for four months every two years. Lawmakers are now figuring out scheduling conflicts with crop harvests, scheduled surgeries, weddings and overseas vacations, Hogue said.
Burgum in a statement expressed confidence in the Legislature resolving the situation before Nov. 1 “to avoid any interruptions to state government operations.”
He also told state agency leaders that he and Republican legislative majority leaders don’t expect interruptions to state employees’ pay or operations or impacts to previously approved pay raises.
The Supreme Court invalidated the funding bill for the state Office of Management and Budget, which is usually the last one passed in the biennial session, and often used as a catchall or cleanup bill for various items.
The court ruled the budget bill was “unconstitutionally enacted and is void” because it goes against a provision limiting bills to just one subject. The justices couldn’t tell which provisions of the bill were primary or secondary, or whether the bill would have passed without any of its 68 sections, Justice Daniel Crothers wrote.
The Legislature afterward asked the court to clarify the date that the decision is effective, and for a delay on the ruling’s effective date until Dec. 18, for time for the Legislature to meet.
The Legislature could reconvene using the five days remaining from its constitutional limit of 80 days every two years to meet in session. Otherwise, Burgum could call a special session, as he did in 2021 for redistricting and allocating federal coronavirus aid.
No decision has been made as to a reconvened or special session, Hogue said.
“There is a lot of uncertainty, but we’re going to remove the uncertainty before the end of this month,” he said.
Funding in the voided bill totaled about $322 million for the state’s 2023-25 budget cycle, according to Legislative Budget Analyst and Auditor Allen Knudson. Items included salary raises for state employees, snow removal grants and numerous transfers from state government funds.
Many of those transfers have already been made or committed, said Republican state Treasurer Thomas Beadle, whose office is documenting where all the money has gone if funds have to be reconciled or “clawed back.”
Not everything in the final bill passed. Burgum in May vetoed some items, including major policy changes for the state’s $9 billion oil tax savings.
The Legislature may be able to include all of the voided bill’s provisions into 14 bills, Legislative Council Director John Bjornson said Friday.
The court ruled on the bill because of a lawsuit brought by the board that oversees the state’s government retirement plans. The board argued it’s unconstitutional for state lawmakers to sit on the board, and targeted a section of the bill that increased legislative membership from two to four. The board cited separation of powers and single-subject violations among points in its argument.
An all-Republican House-Senate panel that included legislative leaders and top budget writers negotiated the final version of the bill, which passed before 3 a.m. on a weekend, ending the session after four months.