Lawmaker Admits They Gutted Auditor’s Powers Because He Isn’t “Supposed to Embarrass People”

State Rep. Keith Kempenich (R-Bowman) speaks on the floor of the state House during the 2017 legislative session

When news first broke that the Legislature had snuck some last minute language into a budget bill to remove the bulk of state Auditor Josh Gallion’s autonomy supporters of the move insisted that it wasn’t retribution.

Only now, as Associated Press reporter James MacPherson reports, one lawmaker is confirming that’s exactly what it was:

Backers initially said the legislation had nothing to do with the new aggressiveness Gallion brought to the job. [State Rep. Keith] Kempenich now says that was a big part of why the legislation was crafted. But he said it wasn’t intended to punish Gallion, but rather to make sure legislators were informed on what he was doing.

“Lawmakers were reading ‘gotcha stuff’ in the paper before we knew about it,” said Kempenich, a rancher from Bowman in the state’s southwest corner. “This isn’t how these things are supposed to go … It isn’t supposed to embarrass people.”

The AP also reports that Gallion was conducting performance audits at about double the rate of his predecessor. “In just two years in office, State Auditor Joshua Gallion has carried out performance audits at about twice the rate of his predecessor,” MacPherson writes.

It was never hard to see a direct line from Gallion’s more aggressive approach to his duties and the retribution he got from the Legislature and Governor Doug Burgum who signed the new restrictions into law. Thank Kempenich for being willing to admit to the connection.

Now Gallion has to beg permission from the Legislature to conduct performance audits of state agencies, though he’s currently seeking guidance from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on just how far those new restrictions go.

Burgum says it’s to stop the state’s resources from being wasted on frivolous audits. Kempenich says it’s so the Legislature is kept abreast of what Gallion is doing.

But really, it’s not up to those people to judge the job of the Auditor.

Gallion’s office is one elected directly by the people. He’s not appointed by Burgum or the Legislature. If he’s not doing his job the right way, there is a political process through which he can be replaced.

I suspect the public, to the extent they’re paying attention, is far happier with Gallion’s work than Burgum and a majority in the Legislature are.

UPDATE: Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki contacted me after publication to objection to the sentence above about Governor Burgum believing state resources are being wasted on frivolous audits. Nowatzki says that’s not an accurate reflection of Burgum’s position.

I published a statement from Burgum about this legislation previously. I think this sentence supports what I wrote: “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.”

Still, I wanted to note the objection for the sake of clarity.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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