Wardner: Lawmakers won’t be recalled over auditor measure

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota lawmakers won’t be called back into session over legislation that limits the powers of the state auditor, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said Monday.

“We’re going to work this thing out,” the Republican said during an hourlong meeting at the state Capitol.

Wardner called the meeting between legislative leaders and Auditor Josh Gallion to discuss legislation that requires the auditor’s office to get permission from lawmakers to conduct “performance audits,” designed to see if agencies are being managed correctly and efficiently. Approval of the measure, which came last month during the session’s final days, has drawn widespread criticism and spurred a referral campaign to ask voters to strip the legislation from the books.

Gallion, a Republican, insisted the meeting be open to the public, and said he was awaiting an attorney general’s opinion to see how the legislation would affect other audits his office performs.

Wardner and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman acknowledged that discussion on the last-minute legislation was lacking. They said any issues can be solved before the Legislature meets again in 2021.

Gallion has carried out performance audits at about twice the rate of his predecessor, Robert Peterson, and the legislation was designed to “reel him in,” said Republican Rep. Keith Kempenich, who pushed the legislation.

The 11th-hour amendment was put in the auditor’s budget that passed unanimously in the Senate and by a wide margin in the House. Democrats in both chambers supported the legislation.

Many lawmakers, including legislative leaders, said they were unaware of the implications of the amendment when they voted on it.

Heckaman called the measure maneuvering “mind-boggling” and “the wrong way to do it.”

Wardner said the legislation was unknown to most, with most lawmakers focused on finishing the final bills to balance the state budget.

Wardner and Heckaman said the goal is to improve communication between the auditor’s office and the Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee, which monitors the auditor’s work but meets no more than quarterly.

Legislative leaders said the 13-member committee needs to meet more frequently to stay better informed about the audits from Gallion’s office.

Wardner said many lawmakers complained that they learned about the audits through media reports. He called Gallion “a new sheriff in town” that operates differently than his predecessor, which has irritated some lawmakers.

Gallion, who was elected auditor in 2016 after Peterson, a Republican, did not run for a sixth term, defended publishing the audits and sending news releases out about them before lawmakers got a look.

“We didn’t single out a specific group and treat them any different,” he said.

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