MINOT, N.D. -- During the waning days of the 2019 legislative session the budget for the state auditor’s office was sneakily amended to severely limit the autonomy of that office.
The amendment requires the auditor to go begging to the Legislature for permission to conduct performance audits.
The Legislature, essentially, gave themselves a veto over the auditor’s power to investigate problems in state government.
This was not an idea submitted as a stand alone bill at the beginning of the session and subjected to all of the scrutiny and debate of committee hearings.
This was not an idea even run by current Auditor Josh Gallion before it was passed.
It was put on an existing bill as an amendment as the Legislature closed in on sine die, and passed by bipartisan majorities.
Now at least one lawmaker has admitted, on the record, that the motivation for the amendment was to rein in the auditor.
“Lawmakers were reading ‘gotcha stuff’ in the paper before we knew about it,” Rep. Keith Kempenich, a Republican from Bowman, told the Associated Press. “This isn’t how these things are supposed to go … It isn’t supposed to embarrass people.”
We are now avoiding embarrassment in state government by limiting the powers of the auditor.
As opposed to state government officials refraining from doing embarrassing things, I guess.
A referendum campaign is forming to put the question of vetoing this legislation on the ballot.
Article III of the state constitution allows the referral any legislation – “or parts thereof” – passed by lawmakers to the ballot.
Per the Secretary of State’s office, organizers would need to collect 13,452 signatures to put the referendum on the ballot. They must file those signatures no more than 90 days after the legislation in question was filed with the Secretary of State’s office.
For SB2004 that was May 2, so this campaign has until late July to make this happen.
But lawmakers could make that rigamarole unnecessary.
They could call themselves back into session to fix this travesty. They have used only 76 of the 80 days the state constitution allots the Legislature for its duties this cycle, and they do have the power to call themselves back to Bismarck.
Or Gov. Doug Burgum, who signed this malarky into law, could call lawmakers into a special session.
However it happens, it’s clear a wrong was perpetrated on the office of the state’s chief accountability officer, and our elected leaders have the ability to fix that wrong before the voters fix it for them.
It would be the right thing to do.
If there is valid criticism of current Auditor Josh Gallion, let’s hear what that criticism is. He’s an elected official. He’s on the ballot this cycle. Any problems with his leadership in that office can be addressed by voters.
That would be the correct way to address this situation.
The wrong way, a method tantamount to killing a gnat with a sledgehammer, was legislation putting all future auditors on the Legislature’s leash.
Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.