Lawmakers or voters may dial back restrictions on North Dakota auditor
BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers will consider dialing back recent restrictions placed on state Auditor Josh Gallion when they reconvene in two years, a House budget-writer predicted Thursday, May 9.
Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, was involved in a last-minute amendment requiring the auditor to seek legislative approval before conducting performance audits. Such examinations have alleged a kaleidoscope of bookkeeping mistakes, ethical lapses and inappropriate use of state resources in recent years.
Though some lawmakers have maintained the move was related to budget talks and meant to ensure better communication with the Legislature, Kempenich said it was at least partly intended to “slow the process up” for an auditor who been more aggressive than his predecessor.
But Kempenich said the language was harsher than he intended. He said he was aiming for reporting requirements rather than an approval process, but he acknowledged he "should have been paying a little more attention to that when it was going through."
Kempenich, like 71 other House lawmakers from both parties, voted for the bill on the penultimate day of the session.
“I had made up my mind that we were going to soften that up” in two years, he said.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said the language will need “some tweaking" because "the amendment goes a little farther than what it should."
"We just want to know what the auditor is up to," Pollert said.
But voters may beat lawmakers to the punch. Organizers hope to soon launch a ballot measure campaign to repeal the auditor restrictions.
Riley Kuntz, a Dickinson electrician and self-described activist who's involved with the effort, praised Gallion and said the office should remain independent.
"He's not afraid to ruffle feathers, which is kind of his job," he said. "But I guess he's paying for it now."
The budget bill amendment was added in a House-Senate conference committee in the waning days of session, catching some lawmakers off guard. The bill easily sailed through the Senate before the provision generated lengthy discussion on the House floor.
Gov. Doug Burgum signed the bill last week.
Though Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, doubted lawmakers would use their new powers to block audits, he said the language shouldn’t have been slipped into the budget bill at the last minute. During those hectic final days of the session, legislators were focused on cementing budget numbers and adjourning ahead of their 80-day deadline.
"The Legislature as a whole, we did not weigh in on that," Wardner said. "It should have been at least talked about in a committee hearing."
Wardner said lawmakers could be called back into session over the auditor provisions, but he doubted that would happen "unless there's some evidence that we need to."
Fargo Republican Rep. Thomas Beadle, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the requirements weren't "onerous" and were meant to keep lawmakers, who write state budgets and policy, in the loop amid changes in Gallion's office.
"We have to fund it, and it's checking whether or not these agencies are following what we've told them they should be following," he said.
Still, Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, said the debate over the auditor bill highlighted a larger problem with introducing policy changes in the final days of the session.
"This is not the first time it's ever happened. It very likely won't be the last," she said. "But it only happens when the people in those positions, in my opinion, abuse the process."
Gallion, a Republican first elected in 2016, said he was surprised by the new language and is now seeking a formal opinion from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on how it will affect his agency’s operations.
Under Gallion, the office has conducted five performance audits of state agencies, and one more is on the way. Though the pace of those probes has picked up since he came into office, Gallion said he has taken a more "surgical" approach to lessen the impact on the audited agency.
The most high-profile of Gallion's performance audits examined an “inappropriate” use of state planes by Burgum’s office, which the Republican governor defended as a prudent use of taxpayer dollars. Burgum’s spokesman has said his approval of the bill was unrelated the plane audit.
Gallion disputed any arguments that he's been overly aggressive.
"I'm just trying to do the job to the best of my ability and follow the law," he said.