To save money, the Legislature has chosen to cut an area of government that saves the government money. Confused? So are we. But here’s the story.
Washington state Auditor Brian Sonntag is urging Gov. Chris Gregoire to veto a legislative decision to take $8 million from a fund set up for performance audits and give it to other government agencies. The fund was established when voters passed Initiative 900 in 2005. It is financed by a tiny portion of the state sales tax so that auditors aren’t beholden to legislators for their funding.
But for the second consecutive budgeting cycle, lawmakers are attempting to raid the fund. In 2009, they sought $29 million, but the governor vetoed that bid and worked out an agreement with Sonntag that still took away $17 million from the performance audit fund.
She should veto this effort and leave the entire amount with the auditor’s office, so that voters can get the comprehensive reviews of government efficiency they asked for when they adopted the initiative.
The irony is that state budget writers have benefited from audit recommendations. It was Sonntag’s office that first suggested a tax amnesty program that has been successful in many other states. The Department of Revenue followed through, which produced the sudden $343 million windfall in May that headed off even more painful budget cuts.
In a letter to the governor, Sonntag suggested tapping the revenue from back taxes, rather than his performance audit budget, for the $8 million the Legislature is seeking for the Department of Social and Health Services and the Department of Revenue.
It certainly doesn’t make sense to take money from programs that pay for themselves. This reminds us of congressional attempts to cut the Internal Revenue Service budget, which results in lower revenue collections, which precipitates even more budget cutting.
In addition, if this raid is allowed to occur, it sets up the prospect of legislators routinely grabbing money from an agency that is supposed to be insulated from their influence. The auditor’s office needs independence to be effective, because it is charged with investigating the efficiency of legislators’ pet projects. But if the state auditor has to worry about rankling lawmakers who can undermine his budget, that independence is compromised.
Before performance audits were adopted by voters, the Legislature had a long history of fending them off. We think they’re needed to tell us how well government is doing its job. Undercutting the audit budget is an unacceptable end run around this vital function.