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Think before you cut the state auditor's budget

With some politicians calling for slashing funds for performance audits, consider all the money Auditor Brian Sonntag has been saving, and the dogs he's been watching.
Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag. None

A bright, high-performing light among our state's elected officials has been State Auditor Brian Sonntag, who was reelected to a fifth term in November by a walloping margin. Sonntag is what once was called "a people's Democrat," a phrase identified with such politicians as Hubert Humphrey, Warren Magnuson, Scoop Jackson, and Harry Truman, with a primary allegiance to ordinary working families and taxpayers. His performance audits — flowing from a Tim Eyman ballot measure (perhaps Eyman's most positive contribution to our public life) — have contributed greatly to keeping performance honest among public and quasi-public agencies.

Not surprisingly, several state legislators, and even some allies of Gov. Chris Gregoire, have suggested that the current budget hole could be closed in part through discontinuance of Sonntag's performance audits. Perhaps in response to these calls, the state auditor's office issued last week its 2008 annual report on The State of Audit. Highlights:

1. Over the past two years, the performance audits have identified more than $1 billion in potential cost savings, uncollected debt, and unnecessary spending. One such audit concluded that four large state agencies could collect $319.4 million in delinquent debt simply by following industry standards and best practices. (The auditor's office estimates that $115 to $232 million in such uncollected debt presently exists across state government).

2. Sonntag advocates a Washington state government comprehensive performance review, as undertaken in other states. Such a review, undertaken in California in 2004, recommended agency consolidations, elimination of 120 boards and commissions, reductions in state payroll of 12,000, and savings of $32 billion over five years. Others in Texas, between 1991 and 2003, resulted in accumulated savings of $14.4 billion.

3. The auditor's first 15 performance audits, in our state, produced 602 specific recommendations and identified $1.1 billion in potential cost savings, unnecessary spending, and uncollected delinquent debt. The audit of traffic congestion estimated a $3 billion economic impact to the Puget Sound region.

4. Overall, in 2007 and 2008 combined, such audits cost taxpayers $15.9 million while resulting in $4.1 billion in cost savings to be realized over a five-year period.

5. Special programs — such as the establishment of a Division of Special Investigations, a Citizen Hotline, and a State Employee Whistleblowers program — have resulted in increasing levels of citizen and public-employee feedback to the auditor's office. For instance, 146 whistleblower cases were instituted in the first six months of this fiscal year as compared to 84 in the first six months of the prior year. During the past 18 months of the hotline's operation, the auditor's office received more than 1,100 potential matters for review which were referred to audit teams in Olympia and across the state. One hotline referral resulted in a finding that Sound Transit had charged thousands of citizens for taxes they did not owe. Sound Transit was forced to refund $3 million for one year to those wrongly assessed.

At the federal level, the Government Accountability Office often exposes bad policies and procedures at public agencies. But the GAO lacks the follow-through muscle that the Washington state auditor's office possesses through its performance-audit procedures.

Sonntag is an old fashioned, people-first, incorruptible public servant. The next call you hear for elimination of his performance audits, please take note of the person or agency making such a proposal and resolve to Take Names and Kick Butt.

Ted Van Dyk has been involved in, and written about, national policy and politics since 1961. His memoir of public life, Heroes, Hacks and Fools, was published by University of Washington Press. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jan 6, 7:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Besides being a people first person, he's also able to not only do math, but apply it.

The rule in Olympia though is the opposite - 'they' think that somehow because they've gone from 'me first' to 'us first' that somehow they are more mature - and the citizen/customer, well, it is their job to keep us in our places, right. That's the law.

-Douglas Tooley
TNKB

Posted Tue, Jan 6, 8:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Who are the politicians that are calling for these cuts? When I saw the headline that is the first thing I wanted to know. Please name names.

ckuehn

Posted Tue, Jan 6, 9:51 a.m. Inappropriate

One of the few posts that I agree with.

If every Washington State citizen and taxpayer took the time to read these audits they would realize how much of their money is wasted and how little desire the Democrats in the legislature have for fiscal responsibility.

Additionally, one can read the audits with their concrete recommendations but you don't know whether or not they are implemented. Worse, when the audit finds an individual guilty of misusing state funds you don't always learn whether that individual paid for their crimes or was just given a slap on the hand.

Lainie

Posted Tue, Jan 6, 10:38 a.m. Inappropriate

CKuehn: The governor's Office of Financial Management included performance audits as the largest single item on a Do Not Buy list submitted to Gov. Gregoire and the Legislature. Several legislators and executive officials were then quoted, anonymously, as suggesting the audits remain on the list.
Following media coverage of the matter, and statements by Sonntag, Gregoire retained the audits in her proposed budget. Most recently, teachers unions are reported to be seeking exemption of education programs from performance audits. That will unfold further in the legislative session.

Posted Tue, Jan 6, 3:42 p.m. Inappropriate

There's not an editorial board in the state in support of de-funding performance audits. This is one issue Olympia-watchers of all political persuasions can rally around.

If you peel back legislative opposition to them, you'll find some state agency pulling strings. The Department of Transportation, and more specifically Washigton State Ferries, have long been serial haters of performance audits. The September 2007 PA of WSF has been buried beneath bureaucratic doublespeak more thoroughly than a cat buries her scat. It's too icky to have to reform.

If anything, the PAs need to be enhanced and results need to be the subject of a statutory implementation requirement. It's our money they're wasting, not theirs.

The Piper

Posted Wed, Jan 7, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

There is more going on here than just Bureacrats getting possesive about our money.

Arrogant attitude is one thing - these folks see themselves as the personfication of our democracy, though, in fact, our constitution makes it quite clear of the people's right for their protection against their government, NOT THE IMBUEMENT OF THOSE RIGHTS IN THE GROUP THAT 'REPRESENTS' THEM.

But, scary thing, that's exactly how the Court's interpret it. Government is the authoritative voice on your individual choices.

Viewing the lawyer Gregoire's position on this matter from this perspective and the conclusion you come up with is quite scary. It is not the bureaucrats for whom we need to be most focused on - it is the 'Officers of the Court' who pander to their most base bureaucratic faults.

The Washington State Bar (acting on the authority of the Supreme Court) justifies this position in two clearly identifiable ways. Though the Bar has strong fiscal responsibility protections for private and corporate assets they specifically ignore complaints about misapplication of public resources.

Further, through a non-standard modification to typical Bar Rules, item 3.3D any Lawyer who becomes aware of public corruption when a lawyer client privilige exists would be penalized for turning it in, contrary to most States. (This was the point Doug Schafer made several years ago).

Not only is corruption specifically tolerated by the Bar, the State Supreme Court, anyone who acts against it will be punished.

I hope this is clear. Under the corruption of the Seattle Superior Court dominated legal officers it IS NOT YOUR MONEY. Further, your 'life' as defined by the US Constitution is not yours.

Your life, your money, belongs to the Goverment/Business Corporatist Bureaucrat Oligarchs, of whom Governor Christine Gregoire is not only the State Queen, but also a leader in establishing these practices nationwide.

Much of it under the direct guise of 'womens rights'.

Spoiled white women, indeed, no better than a corrupt third world country.

Posted Wed, Jan 7, 3:42 p.m. Inappropriate

As uncomfortable as they feel, accountability and transparency work.

It's amazing what moves when you turn the lights on in a dark space.

wcleak

Posted Wed, Jan 7, 6:43 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with the conclusion of this article wholeheartedly.

But just to be fair on the Sound Transit tax collection... this appears to be more the fault of the Department of Revenue and Department of Licensing's who actually collect taxes and manage the software that calculates tax boundaries than Sound Transit.

jcdk

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