The state auditor’s review of the governor’s office use of state aircraft found a couple of hiccups, but nothing too worrisome.
Overall, the report showed Gov. Doug Burgum, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford and their staff following the rules when they use the planes. Flying is an essential part of doing the people’s business in North Dakota. Residents want to see the governor in person and if the governor is going to attend a variety of engagements and meetings he has to fly.
State Auditor Josh Gallion said the review was prompted by comments made by Burgum in his State of the State address about Sanford’s trips. When Gallion’s staff told him they didn’t know about the governor's office airfare, Gallion decided a review was necessary. “At that point right there, I knew if we couldn't see it during an audit, then I'm certain the public couldn't see it, either," he told the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee on Wednesday.
The auditor had four recommendations:
That the governor’s office discontinue using air transportation services for commuting to or from personal residences to official meetings or offices.
That the Department of Transportation discontinue providing air transportation services to non-state employees without a business purpose.
That the DOT ensure the state is not exposed to additional risk for non-state employees traveling on state-owned airplanes.
That the DOT require all agencies to submit a Request for Air Transportation form to establish the business purpose of the trip.
The governor’s office disputed the recommendations on commuting and transporting non-state employees without a business purpose. Mike Nowatzki, the governor’s spokesman, said the planes weren’t used for commuting because there were always meetings scheduled at the destination. He also said non-state employees flying on state aircraft were temporary state volunteers. Gallion said he wasn’t familiar with that term, but Tag Anderson, director of the Office of Management and Budget's Risk Management Division, said the term is used "when evaluating whether someone could be in a state fleet vehicle or ... drive a state fleet vehicle."
The audit committee seemed fairly satisfied with how the state planes are being operated. Nowatzki said the governor's office will consider how to best accomplish reporting flights' business purpose for DOT. It’s likely the Legislature may tweak the policy on the use of aircraft, but major changes are doubtful.
Gallion likely drew some criticism for reviewing the governor’s use of aircraft so early in his term. However, if Gallion had questions about the use of aircraft it was best to quickly deal with it. It’s a transparency issue: the public should know if state aircraft are being operated in an efficient manner. According to the audit, the governor’s office is doing a pretty good job of managing aircraft use.
The Tribune sees no problem with the governor taking state employees or volunteers along on flights as long as they are documented. If the seats are available it doesn’t cost any more.
Hopefully, Gallion will apply his transparency standards throughout state government. The public deserves to know if government is operating in an efficient manner. We now know that the governor’s office, with some improvements down the road, is using state aircraft in an appropriate manner.