Legislative pettiness leads to marginalization of Burgum’s conservative budget

Traditionally in North Dakota the governor’s executive budget, delivered to lawmakers as an address in December, is introduced as actual spending bills at the beginning of the actual legislative session in January.

Last week legislative leaders changed the rules.

While Burgum’s budget proposals will be available to lawmakers, the actual legislation introduced will be drafted by Legislative Council and reflect the priorities of legislative leadership.

I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about this.

The American system of government has a proud tradition of separating powers. There is always a turf battle between the legislative and executive branches.

Heck, we saw that play out in the judicial branch of government last year when lawmakers sued Burgum over a series of vetoes they said were unconstitutional (the state Supreme Court, for their part, found each of the other two branches had overstepped).

Many see this tension between branches of government as a feature of American government, not a bug. Checks and balances, etc., etc.

Allowing the executive branch to directly introduce bills into a legislative session is an unusual foray of executive power into the legislative process. From that perspective, it makes sense for lawmakers to curb it.

I’m not sure the motivations of the lawmakers are that pure.

This seems less a principled stand on the separation of powers than retribution from lawmakers resentful of a governor who campaigned against “good old boys” during his 2016 campaign.

That Burgum has long derided the Legislature’s handling of the budget over the last decade or so doesn’t help either.

What Burgum introduced last week is the most fiscally conservative budget we’ve seen in at least five biennia.

Leading the charge to diminish that budget’s influence in the legislature is Rep. Jeff Delzer (R-Underwood) who was first elected to the state House in 1991, and has chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee (through which all budget bills must go) since 2011.

In the first biennium of Delzer’s chairmanship, our state saw a more than 52 percent increase in total appropriations. That explosion in combined general and special fund spending happened just before commodity prices tanked, forcing sheepish lawmakers like Delzer to bring the budgets back down to earth.

If the Legislature has a separation of powers issue with the executive branch introducing legislation, then fine. That doesn’t seem to be what this is, else the lawmakers would have squashed the agency bills which get introduced from the executive branch as well.

What this smells like is rank pettiness against a governor who dared speak out about the Legislature’s handling of fiscal matters.

Burgum’s executive budget, while not perfect from this observer’s perspective, is a breath of fresh air.

It’s disappointing to see lawmakers so willing to set it aside for puerile reasons.

Lawmakers may feel bold here at the dawn of their session, but they should remember the bills they pass have to be signed by Burgum at the end.

Let’s hope any rancor this session is restricted to disagreement over policy as opposed to a clash of personalities.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.