State Auditor Brian Sonntag keeps getting reelected by huge margins and is perhaps the most trusted statewide elected official. His performance audit program, mandated by statewide public initiative, has been credited for saving taxpayers $10 for every tax dollar spent on these audits. His office, in effect, functions at state level as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) functions at federal level — as an invaluable check on government excesses and follies.
Sonntag's role as taxpayer watchdog has, of course, made him unpopular at the state Department of Transportation, Sound Transit, Port of Seattle, and other public and quasi-public agencies and, additionally, with public-employee and education lobbyists who resent his attempts to police wasteful spending and procedures. Gov. Chris Gregoire has publicly supported Sonntag, a fellow Democrat and former Pierce County Auditor, but behind the scenes her office has collaborated with key legislators to rein in his authority and budget.
The rubber hit the road earlier this week when Sonntag went before the Senate Ways and Means Committee to protest proposed budget cuts which would gut his voter-mandated performance audit program. He termed "absolutely unacceptable" both Senate and House budget proposals which would "take more than half of the revenue that voters permanently designated for performance audits and use it to fund other programs."
The proposals would take $15 million in performance-audit funds from Sonntag and give them to auditing programs directed by the governor's office and the Legislature. Sonntag called the proposed diversions "nothing short of an assault on what citizens expect the state to do when they gave us the authority and the funding stream to carry it out."
After his testimony, no Ways and Means member offered any question or comment. Earlier Rep. Kelli Linville, the top Democrat budget writer in the House, had stated that she had talked with Sonntag and "asked him to be part of our temporary solution."
Whisteblowers and honest citizens' advocates are unpopular with elected and appointed officials who prefer operating without oversight. But they are badly needed to protect the rest of us. Sonntag deserves plaudits and, in this instance, Gregoire and the Legislature deserve Bronx cheers. They should not be allowed to get away with it.
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