“Good enough” performance audits not good

Guest Columnist

  • Friday, October 3, 2008 3:09am
  • Opinion

When snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory, as happened this session with performance audits, it is tempting to settle for anything that comes close to what you have fought for, especially if the journey has been difficult and fraught with failure. Such is the case with performance audits of state government. We have been working for more than a decade to secure independent, comprehensive performance audits, and lawmakers came closer than ever to adopting them this past year. Instead, we got HB 1064.

Unfortunately, the new performance audit law requires that an “advisory” board of political appointees “establish criteria for performance audits.” Having a political board in charge of performance audits may be good enough for some, but it is not for the taxpayers.

The individual(s) in charge of establishing the scope of performance audits directly influences the audit’s ultimate effectiveness. It is not the proper function of “advisors” to have this authority instead of the elected state auditor, especially when these “advisors” are political appointees. Legitimate audits of state government have to take place outside the real or perceived influence of politics. But don’t take our word for it. Read HB 1064 (Section 5) for yourself and draw your own conclusions as to the “advisory” nature of the political board.

Why does this matter? The federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) has established recognized standards for government audits. These standards require that auditors be free of organizational impairment to independence.

True, the new law puts the state auditor on the 10-person “advisory” board, seven of whom are chosen by the legislative caucuses and the governor. But it forbids the auditor (the only member of the board that is elected) to vote or serve as the chairman of the board. So, if a majority of the political appointees decide not to look too closely at politically sensitive programs, the auditor is handcuffed.

Compare this “advisory” procedure with the truly independent and comprehensive performance audits instituted by SB 6103 (Section 104 of gas-tax bill), which gives the state auditor alone the authority to establish performance audit criteria for the Department of Transportation.

While it is true the state auditor might be just as susceptible to political pressure from state lawmakers and the governor as would be the “advisory” board, the state auditor is directly elected by the people and can be held accountable for his actions at the ballot box. Not so with an unelected board of political appointees.

Hoping to avoid performance audits directed by an unelected political board, our foundation crafted model language last fall for use by interested lawmakers. We asked all lawmakers to sign a pledge saying they would support performance audits that allowed the scope of the audits “be established by the elected state auditor, not an unelected group of citizens appointed by the governor and legislature.” Seventy legislators agreed.

Amendments to HB 1064 were offered in both the House and the Senate this past session that would have granted the state auditor the authority to establish the scope of performance audits instead of the political “advisory” board. These measures failed by two votes in the House and one vote in the Senate.

Nineteen of the legislators who signed our pledge failed to honor it by not supporting the failed amendments to put the state auditor in charge. Citizens would have had real accountability from their government had just three of these 19 kept their word.

Our current state auditor, Brian Sonntag, supports the new law because he thinks it is a step in the right direction. He has indicated that he believes the political appointees will follow his lead and allow him to set the scope of state audits. However, there is no tie-breaker provision in the law if the nonvoting auditor and the politically appointed “advisory” board disagree over the scope of an audit or area of review.

We need our elected state auditor to be free to measure the performance of government programs, independent of political interference or influence, using recognized national standards of excellence.

A performance audit law that grants an unelected “advisory” board of political appointees the power to “establish criteria for performance audits” instead of the elected state auditor is not good enough. Taxpayers deserve and expect better.

Jason Mercier is a budget research analyst for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a nonpartisan, public policy watchdog organization focused on advancing individual liberty, a free-market economy and limited and responsible government.

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