SUNDAY, APRIL 14, 2013

Editorial: Editorial: Washington’s auditing budget shouldn’t be raided by lawmakers

Legislators and the governor say they want to run a lean government that does not waste taxpayer dollars.

But where have they turned for money to balance their proposed budgets? The Performance Audits of Government Account, which Washington voters created in 2005 to fund reviews of state and local government efficiency. The audits performed since then have identified millions in potential savings representing many multiples the cost of doing the audits.

The account is funded with a 0.16 percent share of state sales and use tax revenues. That tiny slice becomes a fairly big number, so the account has been a target of cash-starved lawmakers almost since its creation. In 2009, Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed a $29 million raid on what was then an account balance of about $40 million. Then-Auditor Brian Sonntag accepted a $15 million cut, instead.

Pressure on the state’s budget has eased little the last four years. And legislators are trying to find $1 billion to fulfill the Washington Supreme Court’s order in the McCleary K-12 education case last year.

The audit fund is again under attack, particularly by members of the mostly Republican Senate coalition that have said they will not raise taxes; new taxes, old taxes, expiring taxes, etc. They are turning to transfer about $16.8 million from the audit account to the Departments of Social and Rehabilitative Services fraud unit, the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Committee, and other seemingly related programs.

But elsewhere in the Senate budget are provisions that would allow the JLARC money to be passed through to still other accounts, including the general fund.

(A brief aside about JLARC, which was created – as its name implies – to also identify opportunities for spending cuts: implies, because the Legislature has ignored almost all of its work.)

New Auditor Troy Kelley, a Democrat, says he is shocked Republicans would take money away from a program that saves money over the long term. It was as an I-900 audit, for example, that in 2011 found the state was wasting about $500,000 a year on thousands of unused or little-used cellphones.

By his calculations, which assume lower revenue than the coalition does, the audit account will be left with only 40 percent of its funds, not enough to complete all the ongoing audits, let alone any new ones.

Not that the Democrat-controlled House and Gov. Jay Inslee don’t also covet those audit dollars. The House would take a $4.7 million bite, Inslee $2.7 million, but their budgets also include more tax revenues.

Lawmakers are famously able to condemn waste, and notoriously cowardly when it comes to fixing the problem. The highly respected Sonntag had the stature to resist attacks on his budget. Kelley, although he is a former legislator, may struggle to hold his ground.

It should not even be an issue. Audits work. He should have all the money citizens said he should have when they voted in 2005.

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