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.
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