Burgum: AG opinion 'resolved' veto fight with Legislature

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum says his ongoing veto spat with fellow Republicans in the Legislature would have ended months ago if they'd followed the legal advice of his former political rival.

The first-term governor told The Associated Press Wednesday night that he agrees with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's opinion issued in June that sided with the Legislature's challenge of most of the vetoes but also backed Burgum on others.

"The attorney general's opinion would have resolved it," Burgum told the AP. "In our mind it was resolved."

But the Legislature, which filed a lawsuit against the governor earlier this month, disagrees.

"The vetoes still stand — they are still there," Rep. Al Carlson, the House majority leader said Thursday. "It doesn't change anything — it does not undo what he did."

Burgum announced this week that he would use state lawyers from the office of Stenehjem, his opponent in the GOP primary for governor, to defend him against a lawsuit

The dispute stems from the governor using his line-item veto in April and after the Legislature adjourned to change parts of several spending bills in a way that changed intent.

The Legislature would have had to reconvene in Bismarck to override the vetoes. Instead, lawmakers from both parties agreed to sue Burgum in state Supreme Court.

"It's not as easy as the governor saying, 'I won't do it again' — that's not what we are looking for," Carlson said. "We want to be clear on this for future legislatures."

Stenehjem wrote in his opinion that 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.

Stenehjem also said Burgum was not authorized to veto some language in the State Water Commission and Department of University and School Lands appropriations. But Stenehjem said the Legislature ceded too much of its power by giving its Budget Section "significant budgetary decisions," which was not authorized under the state constitution.

Stenehjem 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.

Burgum had not spoken publicly about the vetos, and instead issued a statement following attorney general's opinion saying it supports the "overriding intent" of the vetoes. His statement did not clarify how the opinion furthers those goals.

Burgum also has issued statements previously that called the legal challenge a waste of taxpayer dollars. He also has said in statement that "We will respond accordingly and firmly to any attempt to infringe on executive branch authority."

It's unclear if Stenehjem will defend the case personally in the state Supreme Court, something that the attorney general rarely does in North Dakota.

Stenehjem was traveling out of the country this week and could not be reached for comment.

The North Dakota Constitution requires the Supreme Court to hear the case without first referring it to a lower court. The state's high court has given Burgum until Jan. 16 to file arguments.