On a scale from zero to $8 billion, $29 million is a paltry sum.
So why all the fuss over a raid the Legislature has made on state Auditor Brian Sonntag’s performance audit account?
Answer: Because it’s not the amount that matters as much as the long-term threat to the auditor’s independence – an essential quality in a watchdog.
Hence, Sonntag, backed by other public auditors from around the nation, has called on Gov. Chris Gregoire to veto the troublesome item when she takes final action on the 2009-’11 state budget, probably Tuesday. By heeding that advice, she can demonstrate her commitment to the expectations voters had when they approved Initiative 900 in 2005.
Until that measure passed, the auditor lacked authority to conduct what are known as performance audits. He could assign deputies to comb through state and local agencies’ financial records for errors, irregularities or even misconduct. But it was outside the office’s authority to assess how well an agency was doing its job and whether it was meeting its objectives in the most efficient way.
I-900 changed that, creating the potential for substantial savings to taxpayers. But it did something more, too.
Rather than simply add another duty to the auditor’s responsibilities, the initiative established a dedicated fund to pay for the new purpose. The initiative directed 0.16 percent of the state share of the sales and use tax into a special performance audit account.
Before the Legislature completed its work on the budget, there was nearly $40 million in that fund. Unless the governor wields her veto power to repair the damage, it will drop to $10 million.
Sonntag, an independently elected state official who is directly accountable to voters, understands that bleak economic times oblige all agencies of state government to endure a share of the budget-cutting pain. He agreed to a $15 million reduction in the fund. But the Legislature took almost twice that, $29.2 million. This from a fund that was supposed to insulate the auditor from worries that an honest but adverse audit might put his budget – and therefore the ability to do the job – in political jeopardy.
I-900 sought to avoid that kind of game playing by tying its demand for government accountability to the means to ensure auditing independence. The Legislature wants to determine performance-audit funding in the future based on how much the auditor can demonstrate in actual savings achieved.
That would make sense if you want your auditor to work on a commission instead of following government audit standards that protect integrity and discourage inappropriate interference.
The Legislature’s approach would confound that objective and undermine public trust in government.
Gregoire should use her veto pen to restore it.
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