BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Funding for major parts of North Dakota’s government is in jeopardy after the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Republican-controlled Legislature stuffed a key budget bill full of too many different subjects, violating the state Constitution.
That means lawmakers will be coming back to Bismarck to redo the massive bill — likely pulling Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, a long-shot presidential candidate, off the campaign trail. Burgum said Thursday he’s arranging meetings with legislative leaders for how to best respond.
Attorney General Drew Wrigley called the court’s ruling “seismic in its impact.”
The justices decided the budget bill was “was unconstitutionally enacted and is void” because it goes against a provision limiting bills to just one subject. The justices couldn’t determine which parts of the bill were primary and which were secondary, Justice Daniel Crothers wrote. He said it also wasn’t clear if the bill would’ve passed in its current form without all the different sections, which meant the court had to toss it out in its entirety.
The budget bill for the state’s Office of Management and Budget traditionally contains many subjects that get hammered out in the legislative session’s last days. In the bill were salary raises for state employees, policy changes for the state’s $9 billion oil tax savings, and numerous transfers from state government funds.
Long used as a “cleanup bill” for corrections and minor policy adjustments, this April it was the vehicle for major policy decisions, Democratic state Rep. Corey Mock said Thursday.
“Generally speaking, this was the Legislature taking it too far,” said Mock, who voted against the bill’s final version.
Republican House Majority Leader Mike Lefor disagreed, saying the bill wasn’t significantly different from how the Legislature has utilized it in past sessions, such as for fixing errors. A decision for how to proceed won’t come until next week at the earliest, he said. It’s unclear how long a session might last.
Burgum in a statement acknowledged the court’s decision will require a special session of the Legislature. That could take Burgum, who appeared in the second Republican debate on Wednesday, back home to focus on the legislation.
Chief Justice Jon Jensen wrote that invalidating the bill has “far-reaching consequences,” which is why he favors a 30-day stay on the ruling. That would give the Legislature breathing room to respond.
Wrigley, the Republican attorney general, said he’s working with lawmakers to file motions with the court to allow time for the Legislature to deal with the bill.
The Legislature could reconvene using the five days remaining from its 80-day constitutional limit to meet every two years to pass new laws. The governor could also call a special session.
The state’s highest court was asked to rule on the budget bill because of a lawsuit brought by the board overseeing North Dakota’s government retirement plans. The bill included a change that increased lawmakers’ membership on the board from two to four, a move the board sought to void. The board argued it’s unconstitutional for state lawmakers to sit on the panel.
The bill’s final version was negotiated by top lawmakers from both the House and Senate, including Republican majority leaders and the chairs of the budget writing committees. It was the last bill passed this year, ending the four-month-long session just before 3 a.m. on a weekend.