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GOP lawmakers seek to bar North Dakota governor from making political donations, endorsements

The lead sponsor of House Bill 1256, Rep. Jeff Magrum, said he's bringing the proposal because he believes there needs to be a stronger separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

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North Dakota Rep. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton
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BISMARCK — A group of ultra-conservative North Dakota lawmakers is backing a bill that would block the state's governor from endorsing or making political donations to legislative candidates.

The lead sponsor of House Bill 1256 , Rep. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton, said he's bringing the proposal because he believes there needs to be a stronger separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

While the bill doesn't explicitly name Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, it comes after an election cycle in which the former tech executive spent nearly $2.7 million on political contributions to dozens of candidates. The bulk of Burgum's donations went to the Dakota Leadership PAC , a well-funded committee that paid for mailings and multimedia advertising in several high-profile races, including an all-out effort to unseat powerful House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood.

Magrum said Burgum and his committee targeted him during last year's Republican primaries with negative ads and supported his challenger Jim Grueneich, who had recently resigned his seat in the House of Representatives and moved into Magrum's district. Campaign records show that Burgum personally gave Grueneich a $2,500 donation, but the committee's contributions are not public. Magrum later won reelection.

"It was disturbing that (Burgum) was targeting all of the individuals — whether people like him or not, it's still not right," Magrum said.

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Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki declined to comment on Magrum's proposal.

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North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. Forum file photo

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, wouldn't take a position on the bill, but he said campaign contributions are likely protected by freedom of speech. However, he noted that Burgum's big spending in the last election cycle "invades into" the separation of powers. Pollert said previous governors have gotten involved in financing other candidates, but the amount of money Burgum spent is on a different level.

Pollert previously told Forum News Service that Burgum's spending against Delzer has certainly strained relations between the governor's office and the Legislature.

It's unclear if Magrum's bill would hold up in court — its creator cited a section of the North Dakota Constitution that prohibits the governor from bribing, intimidating or threatening officeholders. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the past that political spending is a form of free speech, whether it's done by individuals or groups.

Magrum said Burgum "has created a fear in the legislative body" that he will target them in the next election if they speak out.

Burgum previously stated that the Dakota Leadership PAC will likely remain active in future elections.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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