Several Contentious Measures Await Gov. Burgum's Review

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Gov. Doug Burgum will be faced with some politically tricky legislation once North Dakota lawmakers finish their work on several unsettled measures and budget bills as the Legislature enters its final weeks.

Conference committees rule at the state Capitol this week, as legislators work to reconcile differing versions of bills endorsed in both chambers.

Some of the more contentious issues still in play include bills that appeal to North Dakota’s ultra-conservative base, such as a measure to allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in schools and legislation that would prevent the Republican governor from mandating face coverings. And then there’s the proposed record spending, something Burgum had promised to reign in since taking office but hasn’t.

Other legislation that will put Burgum to a political test is a bill that could prevent a publicly funded school or entity from knowingly allowing a person under 18 to play on a team that is exclusively for the opposite sex. Another would sanction North Dakota State University for funneling federal grant money to Planned Parenthood, which is nation’s largest single provider of reproductive health services, including abortion.

Some lawmakers say Burgum, a North Dakota State graduate and former Bison football cheerleader, is getting much pressure from university officials and alum to veto the bill.

Prior to taking office, Burgum had been critical of the Legislature’s stance on social issues. After taking office, Burgum walked a fine line on abortion in the highly conservative state until 2017, when he signed two anti-abortion bills that were hailed as a victory by anti-abortion advocates.

His perceived liberal leanings on some social issues likely appealed to many Democrats, who crossed party lines to cast votes for him in the past.

Bismarck Democratic Sen. Erin Oban said there is no mistaking his political leanings now on social issues.

“We have yet to see him show that political courage,” said Oban, one of only seven Democrats in the Senate.

Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said this session, which is expected to finish late this month, isn’t any different than ones in the past.

“There are always controversial bills at the end of the session,” he said.

Nowatzki said the governor generally does not comment on bills until he's acted on them. Burgum did say last week that he would sign a landmark $680 million bonding bill aimed at infrastructure improvements.

Burgum succeeded in being elected governor in 2016 by running as an outsider, bucking what he called the “good old boy” party establishment.

North Dakota hasn’t had a Democratic governor in almost 30 years. GOP Rep. Rick Becker, a former gubernatorial candidate who ran against Burgum, said the wealthy former software executive has shown no contrast in his policy and spending decisions that the Republican governors who preceded him.

“Generally, people know what his politics are," said Becker, who heads the Bastiat Caucus, a far-right group that supports limited government. "They are not the same as when he was campaigning,”

Becker and others point to Burgum’s pledge to rein in “runaway spending,” though Burgum has proposed two of the three largest budgets in state history and did not contest the Legislature’s record $14.7 billion budget for the 2019-21 budget cycle that ends June 30. The Legislature’s newly proposed two-year budget is a record $15.6 billion, and Burgum has not signaled opposition to it.