Gov. Chris Gregoire has until May 18 to either gut or save State Auditor Brian Sonntag's popular (though not with the Legislature) and effective performance audits of public and quasi-public agencies. The audits flow from the passage of statewide Initiative 900, a broadly popular measure pushed by Tim Eyman.
The recently adjourned Legislature defied the spirit and letter of the initiative and cut the performance-audit budget by 73 percent — effectively crippling the program. Gregoire previously had agreed with Sonntag on a 20 percent budget cut of normal state audits but not of the performance audits. She now must veto or approve the Legislature's action. If she vetoes it, the 73 percent cut would be restored.
What legislators were behind the cuts and why? Since the budget was completed by a only a handful of legislators, with others in the dark, the trail seems clear to only a few players, all Sonntag's fellow Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (Spokane), who has gubernatorial ambitions, and state Sen. Rodney Tom (Eastside) apparently were the audits' principal killers in the Senate. State Rep. Kelly Linville (Bellingham), a lead budget player in the House,also shared responsibility.
Others have shown their hands in interviews and communications. Reps. Sam Hunt and Brendan Williams (Olympia) implied to an editorial-board meeting of the Daily Olympian that Sonntag, long ago (1996) mentioned as a possible Democratic gubernatorial candidate, was using the audits to promote himself. State Reps. Ross Hunter (Medina) and Deborah Eddy (Eastside) also took swipes at Sonntag in responses to a constituent e-mail. Hunter, who wants to be King County Executive, characterized Sonntag's performance audits of school districts as "stupid." Eddy was critical of Sonntag's audit of the state Department of Transportation.
Personal opinion: The Legislature's proposed gutting of the performance-audit program is inexcusable. The audits, thus far, have saved taxpayers millions more dollars than they have cost. Among other things, they have uncovered practices by WSDOT, the Port of Seattle, Sound Transit, and other agencies which required correction. Without the audits, they would not have been exposed.
One suspects nothing more than raw politics was involved in Brown's and Hunter's swipes at Sonntag and the audits. Both want to move up the political ladder. Both would derive political support and money from groups resisting Sonntag's oversight. That's small-bore behavior by elected officials who would like us to see them as can-do leaders qualifed for larger responsibility.