Washington State Auditor Identifies $240 Million in Potential Taxpayer Savings

Published December 1, 2008

Against the backdrop of a projected $2.7 billion state budget deficit, Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag has been busy making recommendations that could save taxpayers $240 million over five years while improving services.

Acting with new investigative authority, provided by voters when they passed Initiative 900 in 2005, Sonntag’s office has conducted nine performance audits identifying 434 areas for improvements.

According to Sonntag’s office, the audits “point the way toward millions in savings of taxpayer dollars, and they recommend ways to transform government operations and to make significant improvements in services to citizens.”

$3 Billion Impact

In addition, Sonntag notes his “audit of Puget Sound traffic congestion pointed to $3 billion in economic impacts to citizens and businesses and to the environment—provided all the audit recommendations are put in place.”

Based on the savings identified, the auditor believes his efforts have been well worth the cost. “Considering the $8 million cost of conducting the audits, the findings and recommendations represent a healthy return on investment,” said Sonntag.

Among the performance audits conducted to date:

* Department of General Administration Motor Pool—identified potential savings: $2.3 million over five years.

* Department of Transportation (Washington State Ferries)—identified potential savings: $50.2 million over five years.

* Educational Service Districts—identified potential savings: $23.5 million over five years.

* Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail—identified unnecessary spending: $5.1 million.

* Department of Transportation (Congestion Management)—identified potential benefit: $3 billion over five years in economic impact to citizens and businesses plus environment impacts.

* Department of Transportation (Administration & Overhead)—identified potential savings: $18.1 million over five years.

* Port of Seattle Construction Management—identified unnecessary spending: $97.2 million.

* Department of Transportation (Highway Maintenance and Construction Management)—identified savings and unnecessary costs: $41.9 million.

57 Percent Implemented

Although the savings identified are impressive, the key to success with performance audits is whether the recommendations are actually implemented. It appears Washington government officials are taking this to heart.

The State Auditor’s Office reports 247 of the 434 recommendations thus far have been implemented. That’s 57 percent to date.

Mindy Chambers, spokeswoman for the Auditor’s Office, noted the legislature is still considering many of the remaining recommendations in the state’s budget process, as required by I-900.

“The full effect of this has yet to be seen,” Chambers told the Everett Herald. “The recommendations are supposed to become part of the budgeting process. They’ll have to come back and look at them.”

The governor’s budget office is currently building the framework for the state’s 2009-2011 budget, and analysts note the audit recommendations could help cut spending without harming services.

“Elected officials are quick to resort to tax increases to address their past overspending,” said Paul Guppy, vice president of research for the Washington Policy Center. “As demonstrated by the State Auditor’s performance audits, however, savings abound if you are willing to look for ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of state programs.”

Jason Mercier ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center.