ND no longer has an independent auditor thanks to Burgum, Legislature

In the closing days of the 2019 legislative session lawmakers amended the budget for the Auditor’s Office to include language gutting that office’s authority.

Under this new language, the state auditor is on a leash held in the hands of the Legislature. His office may only initiate performance audits of state agencies with the permission of the Legislature or its audit committee.

Josh Gallion, a Republican who was elected auditor in 2016, has taken an aggressive approach to the duties of his office and it’s hard not to see the Legislature’s actions as retribution.

In the wake of controversy over a Super Bowl trip paid for by an energy company, Gallion’s office initiated a thorough review of Gov. Burgum’s travel expenses.

Gallion also made headlines, and irked powerful tourism interests, when he found several state agencies, including the tourism department, were hoarding money even as they asked for increased appropriations from lawmakers.

Most recently the auditors, under Gallion’s leadership, revealed a troubling conflict of interest at the North Dakota State School of Science, including apparent efforts by the school to cover up said conflict.

That controversy has centered on a powerful Republican named Tony Grindberg, a longtime member of the state Senate and currently, in addition to working at the NDSCS, serves on the Fargo City Commission.

Those of us interested in transparency and accountability in state government have admired Gallion’s muscular and politically agnostic approach to his office.

It’s clear, however, that others in North Dakota politics saw Gallion as getting a bit uppity.

It was my hope that Gov. Doug Burgum, who has been staunch in defense of executive branch authority, would use his line item veto to remove this language.

He did not.

“The Legislature’s action represents a reasonable check on potentially burdensome costs to agencies for performance audits, to ensure that general fund dollars aren’t being redirected to performance audits and away from initiatives for which the Legislature has appropriated funds,” Burgum said in a statement sent to me about the veto.

We had to put the auditor on the leash because of the cost of sharing information with the auditor?

That’s not very convincing.

Burgum further justified the veto by arguing that the Legislature “will be accountable for decisions to approve or deny performance audits.”

But will they?

They prefer their auditors to be deferential.

Gallion wasn’t, and now he has been chastened.

Burgum, who went to court to litigate in favor of executive branch power just last year, has gone along with it.

Which is disappointing for a man who won the governor’s office with a campaign against the “good old boys club” in Bismarck.

This is not a good look for North Dakota’s Republican leadership.

Democrats have long sought to parlay gripes about supposed corruption and cronyism in state government into electoral gains. They’ve mostly been unsuccessful in that endeavor because their rhetoric on that front is mostly fabulism.

But why should the public continue to believe Republicans are committed to ethical, accountable leadership when they react to an aggressive auditor from their own party with legislative revenge?

I should add here that the auditor’s budget passed with broad bipartisan support. In his statement to me, Burgum noted that “every Democrat in the House” voted for it, though I’m not sure bipartisanship improves this particular outcome.

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