The most interesting political story in North Dakota right now isn’t a partisan battle. This is no surprise since North Dakota Democrats have pretty much obliterated themselves. The result could be dull politics, but that’s not the case here. While Republicans hold every statewide elective office and occupy a large majority of chairs in both legislative chambers, they’re hardly a unified force.
Not that they really need to be. Democrats had a role in this story, which involves the state auditor’s continuing pokes at Gov. Doug Burgum’s sense of political and personal privilege. Josh Gallion announced his re-election campaign as an historic snowstorm struck the state, and so it was largely overlooked. Even Burgum seemed not to notice. Despite professions of cordiality between the two, there’s obvious tension.
Gallion was first elected in 2016 and he lost little time asserting the prerogatives of the office. Early in 2018, Gallion launched an audit of Burgum’s use of the state airplane. This came after Burgum initially accepted transportation and tickets to the Super Bowl, played in Minneapolis. No state money was involved, and Burgum ended up paying for his own trip. Nevertheless, Gallion found what he called “excessive use” involving state aircraft but not related to the Super Bowl. One involved a football game, UND’s Potato Bowl. Gallion also called out an apparently cozy relationship between a former state legislator, a well-placed Republican who became vice president of North Dakota College of Science, and steered contracts to a firm that employed his wife.
Legislators struck back in the closing days of their 2019 session, passing a bill requiring the state auditor to get permission for performance audits from a legislative committee. A Democrat carried amendments making these changes on the floor of the state House of Representatives, and every Democrat voted for it. Not that it mattered, of course, since Democrats held only a small fraction of seats. Still, the Democrats’ attention to the auditor’s office was unusual. The last time a Democrat ran for the office was 2012, and the last time a Democrat held the office was 1894.
The more interesting part of the story is that a rump group of Republicans voted against the bill, arguing that the state constitution gives the auditor the authority to conduct such audits, that the bill was punitive and that it wouldn’t pass constitutional muster. Burgum signed the bill anyway. The attorney general, who lost a primary race for the Republican gubernatorial endorsement to Burgum, said the critics were undoubtedly right, but that someone would have to challenge the law in order to bring the case to the Supreme Court, the arbitrator of such things. No one has, and the auditor continues to conduct the audits despite a bill passed in the constitutional way, with a majority vote in both houses and a signature from the governor.
Most recently, Auditor Gallion found that Burgum’s office had erred in not seeking competitive bids for a new state motto and promotional logo. The consultant his administration hired recommended a modest change to “Be Legendary” instead of the old tag line, “North Dakota: Legendary.” The typeface was changed, too, emphasizing the legendary part and downplaying the state’s name. As it turned out, the consultant had worked for Burgum’s private business. Plus, the remake was accomplished in two separate contracts, each just below the minimum threshold that would have required a bidding process.
In a normal state with two functioning political parties, this would have been an enormous gift for Democrats, but their candidates can hardly challenge the law limiting audits since Democrats abetted its passage. Nor can they fault Gallion since he’s exposed an issue that likely resonates with voters, that is, guarding the treasury. The party’s 2016 gubernatorial candidate, State Rep. Marvin Nelson, conceded as much, criticizing the Commerce Department’s handling of the contracts. In 2019 he introduced a bill – unsuccessfully – that would have required a contest to change the logo.
As we have seen, one-party government isn’t dull, and it deserves our continuing attention. The perils became clear when the one-party land board overlooked an error in allocation of oil tax moneys that should have gone to a fund that supports public schools. The board has five members, all Republicans: the governor, the secretary of state, the attorney general, the superintendent of public instruction and the state treasurer. The mistake occurred in the treasurer’s office, and it remained unnoticed for a decade. The treasurer blamed ambiguities in the law, which the Legislature passed, of course. All concerned, including lawmakers, have accepted the explanation.
A single member from another party might have noticed and called the oversight to public attention, perhaps by alerting the press. Or an attentive board member might have done the same.
Too bad the auditor isn’t a land board member. Josh Gallion is the closest thing to a government watchdog that North Dakota has these days.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.