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SOME 21 years after he hung up his green eyeshade, former state Auditor Bob Graham died Wednesday at the age of 93. Well-regarded in office, the Democrat oversaw the state’s financial watchdog operation for 28 years.

Administrative reforms aside, his most lasting legacy might be a groundbreaking initiative the Legislature blocked.

Until Graham took office in 1965, audits were a matter of ensuring figures added up and rules were followed, and no one was dipping into the public till. A new sort of audit was being tried on the federal level and in other states: performance audits.

These audits raised the question: Was the public getting the most for its money? Criticism from an independently elected state official made the statehouse tremble. Graham’s office irritated then-Gov. Dan Evans with a pair of critical audits of state agencies and appeared to be turning attention to the Legislature. Horrified lawmakers drew the line, and Washington became the only state to pass a law preventing its auditor from conducting performance audits. Graham complained about it every election.

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It took 34 years to win that battle. Graham’s successor, Brian Sonntag, took up the cause and finally won performance-audit authority and a stable funding source under Initiative 900 in 2005. The program has more than proved its worth.

Since its inception, the auditor’s office reports $1 billion in savings from its recommendations, including a tax amnesty that yielded $343 million, which rescued a revenue-strapped Legislature in 2011.
Still, the office must fight every budget year against lawmakers who wish to cut audit funding.

The rightness of Graham’s crusade has been borne out over time. The fact that the program continues to irritate the Legislature shows how right he was.

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