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North Dakota’s governors should lose their fear of the v-word

MINOT, N.D. — You know what a veto is.

Everyone who has taken a basic civics course knows this is a constitutionally granted tool governors and presidents wield. If they don’t like a bit of policy sent to them by lawmakers, they can reject it, and force lawmakers to either accept the rejection or accumulate a supermajority of votes to override it.

But here in North Dakota, the conventional wisdom is that our governors can’t talk about vetoes. Recently I

wrote a column

in which I suggested that Gov. Doug Burgum should just come out and say that he’d veto a property tax buydown proposal currently circulating among lawmakers. Per his public comments,

including some jabs thrown during his State of the State address

, he doesn’t like the idea.

I asked: Why not be transparent about his intentions and use the v-word?

The response to my column from politicians and gadflies across the state was to instruct me that the governor is prohibited, by law, from speaking about vetoes.

These folks are wrong.

To be sure, there are some proscriptions on the governor’s veto power in the state constitution. Among them is a clause that many interpret as a prohibition on threatening a veto. But few who make this conclusion seem to have read the text of the law.

Here’s what

Article V, section 10

of our state’s founding document says about it: “A governor who … menaces any member [of the legislative assembly] by the threatened use of the governor’s veto power … must be punished in the manner now, or that may hereafter be, provided by law, and upon conviction thereof forfeits all right to hold or exercise any office of trust or honor in this state.”

That section is one long, horrendous run-on sentence, so I cut a lot out, but the context is important. The section prohibits the governor, on pain of impeachment, from using their official powers, including the veto, in quid pro quo arrangements.

Based on what the law says, our governors can talk about vetoes. They just can’t menace a lawmaker with a veto. If Gov. Burgum were to announce in a news conference or during a media interview that he would veto a certain bill if it reached his desk, he would not violate the constitution. He wouldn’t be menacing anyone, let alone a member of the Legislature, nor would he be engaging in any quid pro quo arrangement.

I suspect that the misconceptions about this part of North Dakota law will endure, but those of you who have read this column are now equipped to rebut that nonsense.

Though we should ask ourselves if the restrictions that exist, those on a governor using veto threats as leverage, are appropriate.

Lawmakers are free to use their votes for or against bills as currency during legislative deliberations. Why shouldn’t the governor have that same ability?

If challenged in court, I believe many of these restrictions on the governor’s veto authority would be struck down. Until that happens, North Dakota’s governors should feel freer than they have to talk about their veto authority.

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