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Evolving emergency powers

Published: Mar. 23, 2021 at 5:54 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - The balancing act between the state legislature and the governor’s office continues, but time is running out. Lawmakers continue to pass bills to limit the governor’s powers, but will the governor give his power back?

Lawmakers have a package of bills to limit how long a state of emergency can last without consent of the state assembly.

One bill resets the clock every 30 days by a vote of the entire legislative body.

Another calls in legislative leadership, who then decide whether to call for a special session.

In either path, the next state of emergency, natural or otherwise, could look very different.

Did the governor act quick enough? Should the people’s voice be more involved?

These are the questions presented to lawmakers and their constituents.

“Regardless of what the government’s actions were going to take, it was probably going to run its course pretty much, anyhow. Something probably helped like the mask wearing or whatever,” Bismarck resident Tom Thompson said.

Over the past year, the Capitol City saw rounds of protests against government-ordered COVID mandates. Including the Gov. Doug Burgum’s, R-N.D., business closures last spring and the halt of high school sports in the fall.

And now lawmakers want more of a say in these decisions.

“I think we all had a tough year trying to figure this all out. I just think this helps us balance and fill that gap where the legislators weren’t involved,” Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, said.

Lawmakers continue to insist that the bill is not specific to COVID nor the governor’s use of executive orders.

This session alone, there have been 55 bills related to the pandemic. Three of them refer specifically to declaring states of emergency.

“We understand the desire for discussion around emergency authority. What we ask is that we think about this legislation and all COVID legislation with a forward-looking lens rather than litigating the last twelve months,” Burgum’s Chief of Staff Jace Beehler said.

Those on the front lines say this type of legislation would harm the state’s response time and make authority in an emergency unclear.

“You don’t want to try to manage an emergency through a committee. You need empowered leaders at all levels to make decisions that in some cases may be life and death decisions when you’re up against a competitor,” said Director of the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services Major General Alan Dohrmann.

While lawmakers attempt to change emergency orders, they already hold the power to terminate the current state of emergency without needing Burgum’s signature.

An effort to do so failed in February with a 28 – 65 vote.

Burgum’s office has made it clear they oppose any kind of changes to the governor’s emergency powers.

However, they are showing more support for the bill that calls on a small group of legislative leaders to decide if a session is needed rather than an automatic calling of the entire assembly.

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