BISMARCK — The chairman of the North Dakota legislative committee that keeps tabs on the state auditor’s work worried Monday, May 6, that new mandates imposed on the office may be a case of lawmaker micromanagement.
Republican Sen. Jerry Klein, who chairs the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee, said Senate leadership was surprised by last-minute provision requiring state Auditor Josh Gallion to seek legislative approval to conduct performance audits, which are known to hone in on specific problems within agencies. The language was included in the office’s two-year budget bill, which was signed by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum Thursday.
“I don’t think the ... committee will put any roadblocks in front of any well-intentioned performance audit,” Klein said. “I don’t think we want to micromanage.”
Though Klein, a Fessenden lawmaker who serves as the Senate’s assistant majority leader, currently chairs the audit committee, that could change when the makeup for interim study committees is decided in the coming weeks. Lawmakers adjourned the 2019 session late last month.
Gallion, a Republican, said it seemed lawmakers were “trying to inject themselves into the day-to-day operation” of his office. He submitted a request for a formal opinion from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem seeking to nail down the impact of the requirements, including whether they would apply to regular audits of state agencies.
Grand Forks Democratic Rep. Corey Mock, who carried the bill on the floor and was a member of the conference committee that added the provision, said the language wasn’t intended to affect regular “operational” reviews and was instead aimed at ensuring better communication with lawmakers who write state agency budgets.
Mock said it was “never the intention” to allow lawmakers to block audits.
“I would imagine that legislators would be held accountable to that kind of favoritism or manipulation,” he said.
Lawmakers added two full-time positions to the agency and required that the auditor report how much time the office’s staff was spending on each type of audit. The office is required by law to review each state agency every two years, but it’s the more irregular performance audits that have generated unflattering headlines for state officials.
That included Burgum, whose office was the subject of a recent probe examining the use of state airplanes. His spokesman said the audit didn’t factor into his decision to sign off on the bill.
In a statement, Burgum said the Legislature’s move represented 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.”
Gallion said the audited agency’s costs would be the staff time needed to comply with the review.
“The goal of the audit is to help the program improve,” he said.
Gallion declined to comment on whether he planned to run for a second term in 2020, but he acknowledged that the new restrictions will be a factor in his decision.