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State Auditor Josh Gallion during a meeting with members of the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee in 2018 at the state Capitol in Bismarck. 

When someone makes a mistake they need to admit it and fix it. So far, legislators have said they erred when they limited the power of the state auditor, but have danced around a solution.

Legislators need to come back to Bismarck for a quick special session and drop the requirement that the auditor get permission from the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee for performance audits. The requirement was added to a budget bill in the waning days of the legislative session. Legislators said it was an effort to improve communication with the auditor’s office. The Tribune thinks that’s a bogus argument.

The Tribune believes legislators took the action because they didn’t like Auditor Josh Gallion’s aggressive approach to doing his job. His audits embarrassed some offices and put one former legislator in a bad light. So legislators, without a formal committee hearing, moved to clip Gallion’s wings. They essentially put the fox in charge of the henhouse. The Legislature, however, misjudged the public.

Voters approved Measure 1 last November because they wanted oversight over public officials. They then watched as legislators tried to water down Measure 1 and then voted to restrain an officeholder doing his job because they didn’t like government errors being made public. They tried to cloak their grievous act with the excuse of the need for better communication.

After the public uproar over their action, legislative leaders met Monday to review the situation. They decided against a special session, instead announcing that the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee would meet on a more regular basis. The committee, however, can still block a performance audit if it wants. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he doubts the committee would interfere with an audit by Gallion’s office. Wardner described the Legislature and the auditor’s office as being “joined at the hip.”

There’s no arguing that the Legislature has a relationship with all state offices. Legislators control the budgets and that gives them a lot of leverage. In this case, the Tribune believes the Legislature went too far.

The Tribune would have liked Gov. Doug Burgum to veto the section of the bill involving the auditor. The governor says he favors transparency, but signing the bill runs counter to that statement. However, the major responsibility falls on the Legislature. Legislators didn’t use all the 80 days allotted to them for a session, so they have the ability to come back and correct their mistake. They may be hoping that by waiting two years the public will forget about the issue. That’s unlikely. There’s already discussion of a ballot measure to repeal the legislative action.

It would be a lot easier for the Legislature to reconvene and repair the damage. Some legislators have admitted the intention of the amendment was to slow the work of the auditor, while others say the legislation was badly written. It all comes down to an effort by the Legislature to limit the authority of a statewide-elected official.

The Legislature needs to be less concerned about how much power it has and pay more attention to the public’s desire for accountability. If there are no problems or conflicts then no one needs to be worried about audits. If there are problems the Legislature should want them corrected. The first problem to correct is the effort to stifle the auditor.

It’s time to come back to Bismarck.

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