Thanks to the veto pen of Gov. Chris Gregoire (D), Washington state’s performance audit program remains intact and adequately funded. The move gives the state auditor a green light for conducting performance audits to help identify opportunities for government reform as the state looks to rebound from the economic recession.
Gregoire rejected a $29 million raid by lawmakers on State Auditor Brian Sonntag’s (D) dedicated performance audit account to help balance the 2009-11 biennial budget.
Despite Sonntag’s willingness to share in the budget pain, lawmakers went a step further and tried to take 73 percent of the funds from the dedicated performance audit account. The state’s voters created the account in 2005, when 57 percent approved Initiative 900, giving independent performance audit authority to the state auditor.
At stake was whether the auditor would be able to do a comprehensive statewide performance review requested by the governor while also conducting robust performance audits of state and local governments.
Raid Gutted Funding
The raiding of the performance audit program brought a strong rebuke from the state auditor.
On April 24 Sonntag sent a letter to House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) which read in part, “The section that sweeps away most of our performance audit funding is ridiculous and offensive both to us and to citizens.
“The cuts are unacceptable and will severely undercut our ability to do independent performance audits,” Sonntag continued. “I am deeply disappointed in the way the budget process has worked this year. The lack of clear, ongoing communication with your members regarding our budget has led to confusion and, now, this unacceptable budget proposal.”
Reform Efforts Endangered
This wasn’t the first time the state auditor expressed outrage at legislative attacks on the dedicated performance audit funding.
Testifying before the Senate Ways and Means Committee on March 31, Sonntag said of the fund raid, “It is unacceptable to me. It is unacceptable to citizens who in such a time as this look to us more than ever to ensure that government is accountable and transparent. They recognize this office is uniquely positioned to be part of the reform, the governance change, that everybody talks about and wants.”
Sonntag continued, “What particularly disappoints me is that the effects of this budget come at a time when our office is looked upon to be part of the solution. Every discussion we’ve had with legislative leadership and the governor centered on how we can help bring about meaningful, cost-saving government reform.”
Having failed to persuade lawmakers, on May 5 Sonntag formally requested the governor veto the $29 million funding cut.
Accepted 50 Percent Cut
The auditor told the governor, “The $15 million we agreed to have the legislature sweep from our current performance audit fund balance would have reduced that budget by about 50 percent, but it was similar to fund balance sweeps at other agencies. As passed by the legislature, the budget reflected a 73 percent cut ($29 million) in our performance audit funds. We also are disappointed at the legislature’s failure to recognize that our 15 completed audits identified nearly $500 million in cost savings and unnecessary spending for state government alone. Considering the cost to conduct those audits, we have achieved a 10-to-1 return on investment.”
Discussing her veto, the governor said the state auditor agreed to keep $15 million of the funds in reserve to be transferred the next time the legislature meets—the same amount the auditor had previously agreed to be reduced from the performance audit account.
Sonntag said of Gregoire’s veto, “We can now move ahead in our effort to help bring about real reform to state government programs, and at the same time honor our commitment to the citizens of the state who gave us performance audit responsibility.”
Worried About Precedent
Citizen activist Tim Eyman, sponsor of I-900, expressed concern about the deal between the governor and state auditor.
“Sonntag was given a choice: Agree to a $15 million transfer later or allow the entire $29 million transfer to go forward now. In Olympia, that’s business as usual and it’s called a ‘deal.’ Out here in the real world, it’s called blackmail,” said Eyman.
“But because of the governor’s veto, we live to fight another day,” Eyman acknowledged. “Next session, there will be a bill introduced that takes away $15 million from I-900’s dedicated performance audit account. During the hearing on that bill next year, all of us will work together to push against their proposed illegal transfer.”
Sonntag, by contrast, is happy with the compromise.
“This will allow us to maintain our commitment to move forward with the statewide performance review and to have an acceptable level of funding for specific performance audits,” Sonntag said.
Jason Mercier ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center.