Legislator says law limiting state auditor is a 'mistake'

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A Republican lawmaker who backed a new law that requires the state auditor to get the North Dakota Legislature's approval for conducting performance audits said Wednesday he will introduce legislation next session to overturn it.

Approval of the measure to clip the auditor's wings, which was inserted into a budget bill during the legislative session's final days in April, has drawn widespread criticism and spurred a referral campaign to ask voters to strip it from the books. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem issued an opinion last month saying it is likely unconstitutional.

"The word 'approval' was a mistake," Rep. Keith Kempenich told The Associated Press. "We just want to know what he is doing."

State Auditor Joshua Gallion, an elected Republican, has carried out performance audits at about twice the rate of his predecessor — a move that hasn't endeared him to many lawmakers, state agencies or the governor. The law had drawn strong support from Republicans and Democrats.

The state auditor's office inspects the books of government agencies and North Dakota's university system. It routinely finds problems with agencies that it reviews, including an audit last year of the governor's office last year that concluded Gov. Doug Burgum, the lieutenant governor, office staff and first lady used state airplanes for in-state trips with questionable purposes and for out-of-state trips where cheaper commercial flights were available. The governor's office has defended its use of state planes, saying it was state business.

Backers initially said the legislation had nothing to do with the new aggressiveness Gallion brought to the job. But Kempenich later said that was a big part of why the legislation was crafted.

Gallion said the new law hurts his ability to perform independent reviews. He reemphasized Wednesday that he would not follow the new law, based on the attorney general's opinion.

"It's business as usual," Gallion said. "The attorney general is my attorney and I'm taking the advice of my attorney."

Kempenich said he plans to introduce legislation when lawmakers meet again in 2021 that will strike the requirement to have the auditor get lawmakers' permission altogether.

The 19-member Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee, which monitors the work of the auditor, held its first meeting Wednesday at the state Capitol. Lawmakers did not address the new law in the early part of the daylong meeting set to review audits that have been done.

Republican Sen. Jerry Klein, who chairs the committee, said in an interview that he expects "business as usual" from the auditor but that he hoped for better communication.

GOP Rep. Mike Nathe said "the law is the law" and Gallion should follow it. The issue may have to be settled in court "at the expense of taxpayers," he said.

GOP Sen. Ray Holmberg said the backlash from the legislation has largely been an embarrassment for lawmakers.

"There is no fig leaf big enough for the Legislature for this," he said.