Tough cuts and friendly lawsuits: North Dakota’s 65th Legislature

Dealing with a new governor, a national focus on state politics and a tighter budget sounds like a stressful recipe for any politician. But that's what faced North Dakota legislators this spring in the 65th Legislature.

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Kelly Armstrong

Dealing with a new governor, a national focus on state politics and a tighter budget sounds like a stressful recipe for any politician. But that’s what faced North Dakota legislators this spring in the 65th Legislature.

It’s now been a few months since the Legislature adjourned and state representatives have had ample time to return to their normal lives. With some separation from the hectic legislative period, The Press talked to western North Dakota representatives about issues they faced this spring and what they will be working on in the interim period.

Budget With over $1 billion less tax revenue in play than in the previous biennial, governing in the 2017 legislative session presented a unique challenge for North Dakota’s Legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner attributed the tighter budget not just to falling energy prices, but also to a drop in the price of agricultural commodities. “We had to make some cuts; that’s a major, major issue, Wardner said.

Even with the challenge of a tighter budget, Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-District 36, chose to look on the bright side: “This is still one of the top five (richest) budgets we've ever had,” adding that, though necessary, “trying to curb the growth of government is always a challenging deal.”


Wardner believes that bringing more economic diversity to North Dakota will help bring a more stable budget.

“We are always looking for ways that we can encourage companies to come here,” Wardner said, referring to the state’s recent rise as a leader in drone manufacturing and oil refining.

With the budget challenges, state Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-District 37, was “very happy” that they were able to secure enough funding for Dickinson State University.

Gov. Doug Burgum During the spring session, newly elected Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed more than a dozen bills. While vetoes from the governor’s office are not uncommon, they were surprising considering that Republicans controlled the governor’s office and held supermajorities in the House and Senate.

Steiner didn’t agree with some of Burgum’s vetoes and said while she “likes what the governor talks about on innovation” she doesn’t agree on him vetoing “words in a bill.”

Armstrong believes a certain amount of friction between the Legislature and the governor is a positive.

“I think the fact that there are disagreements shows that people are trying to do what's best for their constituencies and not just coasting,” Armstrong said.

Wardner has been fighting to overturn some of Burgum’s vetoes, including a veto that would block the appropriation of extra funds to rural western districts.


While disagreements between Wardner and the governor’s office have been serious enough to go to North Dakota’s Supreme Court, Wardner says that their feud is overblown. He believes they are philosophically still on the same page.

“It’s a friendly lawsuit,” Wardner said.

Voter identification laws The passage of a new voter identification law in North Dakota attracted both local and national attention. A similar voter ID law, which passed in the previous session, was struck down in a federal court last August on grounds that it discriminated against Native American voters.

Wardner and other Republicans believe that the new law is an improvement over the previous one.  “We adjusted it, made some tweaks and we’re hoping that (the voter ID law) will make it” past the courts, he said.

Wardner doesn’t think voter fraud has been an issue here in the past, but the law should nonetheless be put in place. “You got to have a driver’s license for everything else,” he said.

Steiner and Armstrong agreed with Wardner and supported the law. Steiner said we need to “make sure that people are who they say they are. It's really important that we have integrity in our elections."

This summer and beyond In the interim period, western North Dakota legislators will be involved in a variety of projects impacting local and state politics.

Among other things, Armstrong will be concerned with the outcome of a survey on lakebed mineral property rights under Lake Sakakawea. The issue addresses whether the rights to minerals will be granted to private owners or whether they will remain with the state.


Armstrong’s Senate Bill 2134 passed this spring and would return the mineral rights to private owners. He said  the bill was, “the right thing to do for private property rights.” With hundreds of millions of dollars potentially at stake in the outcome, Armstrong said he doesn’t “know if (he will) ever work on a piece of legislation as massive as that again.”

Steiner, along with helping raise funds for the new Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, will also be a member of a commission to review the state’s initiated measure and referral process. The commission will address concerns of lobbying and corporate influence in North Dakota politics. Steiner will investigate whether “ outside money is taking advantage.”

Wardner and Armstrong are also working together on criminal justice reform. Both legislators attended the Justice Reinvestment Initiative on July 19, and are committed to better address drug addiction and non-violent drug crimes.

“We need to figure out a way to deal with criminal justice more efficiently, we cannot keep building jail and prison beds,” Armstrong said.

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