In a reform nearly half a century in the making, Washington state voters in November restored the state auditor’s authority to conduct independent and comprehensive performance audits of state and local government. The state legislature had removed that authority in the 1960s.
State voters restored the authority by approving Initiative 900 (I-900), which dedicates 0.16 percent of the state’s sales tax revenue ($18.5 million for the current budget biennium) for the state auditor to conduct performance audits. The audits measure the efficiency, effectiveness, and economy of government spending.
Fifty-seven percent of voters approved I-900. Proponents described the performance audits as a valuable management tool carefully structured around tough, nationally recognized auditing principles that evaluate whether tax dollars are being spent in an efficient, effective, and economic manner.
Audits Had Been Banned
In the mid-1960s Washington’s then-state auditor, Robert Graham, conducted a performance audit of the executive and legislative branches. Embarrassed by the results, the legislature proceeded to ban the state auditor from conducting further performance audits of government.
After years of lobbying by current State Auditor Brian Sonntag (D), the 2005 legislative session saw numerous bills introduced that promised the state auditor varying degrees of authority to conduct performance audits.
“We’ve advocated for performance audits in state agencies for 12 and a half years. There have been several legislative efforts over the years, but they never resulted in anything,” said Sonntag.
Think Tank Joined Fray
Working closely with the state auditor, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based policy group (where this reporter serves as senior budget analyst), focused its efforts on encouraging the legislature to implement this reform.
“Prior to the session we drafted model language and circulated a performance audit pledge that garnered the support of 70 legislators,” said foundation President Bob Williams. “Unfortunately, when it came time to vote on the bill, 19 legislators broke their pledge, resulting in a watered-down performance audit ‘authority’ for the state auditor.”
Instead of placing the state auditor in charge of the process, the law that was adopted (HB 1064) created a politically appointed citizen advisory board to oversee any performance audits conducted by the state auditor.
In a compromise to secure Republican votes for a 16-year $8.5 billion gasoline tax increase, the legislature did authorize independent performance audits for the Department of Transportation (DOT) in a separate bill. That was done even though HB 1064 explicitly prohibited the state auditor from conducting performance audits of DOT.
‘Voters Want Accountability’
Against that backdrop, Washington citizen Tim Eyman introduced I-900 to offer voters a “900-pound gorilla” alternative to the legislature’s weak version of performance audits. Eyman had been involved in a number of tax cut initiatives through the years and knows the value of imagery. He wore a gorilla suit when holding I-900 press conferences.
“All the intellectual groundwork for performance audits had been laid out for years by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation and talk radio, making Initiative 900 a real cakewalk,” said Eyman. “Voters instinctively want accountability and transparency, but elected officials don’t. It was a perfect issue for a citizen initiative. A monkey could have sponsored and succeeded with such a common-sense reform initiative.”
“I-900 gave the legislature the impetus to act this year. At the same time, what the legislature did gave credibility to I-900,” Sonntag said.
Eyman, who is usually chastised by the media for his tax cut initiatives, was surprised when I-900 enjoyed broad media support throughout the campaign, winning endorsements from most of the state’s newspapers.
“Many opponents of our past initiatives supported this year’s 900-pound gorilla. And many of them, especially in the mainstream press, twisted themselves into knots simply because we were the ones sponsoring it,” said Eyman.
Other States Might Follow
While I-900’s adoption in Washington has immediate implications for that state, supporters of limited and accountable government see the initiative’s 57 percent approval vote as having an impact on budget debates nationwide.
“We’ve heard the big tax-and-spenders claim that Colorado’s suspension of the state’s tax and spending limit means voters don’t want to limit government’s tax and spending authority,” said Williams. “This could not be further from the truth. As shown with I-900, taxpayers expect government to justify its use of our money. If a meaningful tax and spending limit was coupled with the requirement for prioritized budgeting and independent performance audits, opponents of fiscal restraint would be left with only straw man arguments.”
Auditor Moving Quickly
The state auditor is not wasting any time in implementing the performance audit reform. Sonntag hopes to conduct a performance review of state government in 2006 to help identify government programs in need of more detailed performance audits.
“We now have a unique opportunity where we have support by the governor’s office and the citizens for independent performance audits. A 57 percent vote is a loud voice. Clearly the people are saying we want accountability and transparency,” said Sonntag.
Jason Mercier ([email protected]) is senior budget analyst at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington.