The Legislature has a history of pouncing on any seemingly available fund balance it can. And without a strong voice — or any voice — to fight for open and responsive government, the result was a large number of state agencies have not been audited in years.
When the state Auditor’s office recently reported that a large number of state agencies had not been audited in the past four years, it raised a significant question of how this was allowed to happen?
It meant that during that time those agencies were operating without the independent check and balance that an audit provides, and they knew no one was looking at their operations.
This shameful condition and the responsibility for it must be laid at the feet of former state Auditor Troy Kelley, who was under federal investigation resulting in his indictment and subsequent trial. Kelley did not seek re-election in 2016.
Under this cloud, the Auditor’s office was effectively leaderless and directionless while Kelley took a “leave of absence.” A sad legacy.
While the office’s staff continued to do good, professional work every day during this leadership void, the Legislature continuously reduced funding for its fundamental constitutional responsibility of auditing state government. This became a common occurrence every budget period, and there was no one to advocate for accountability and transparency on behalf of citizens.
This was not all state lawmakers did. Last year, they snatched another $10 million, this time from performance audits designated for review of various public agencies. Fortunately, Gov. Jay Inslee restored $5 million. Remember that this performance audit responsibility was authorized overwhelmingly by Washington citizens as a result of a state initiative in 2005.
Clearly, the Legislature has a history of pouncing on any seemingly available fund balance it can. And without a strong voice — or any voice — to fight for open and responsive government, this can be the result.
Now, the office has new leadership. It is time to restore funding that is required for the state Auditor’s office to regularly audit every state agency. I applaud State Auditor Pat McCarthy and her staff for highlighting this condition and seeking restoration of $700,000 to the office’s budget, necessary to do its job.
As State Auditor for 20 years, I know just how vital the work of this office is. The founders of the state recognized this critical role by creating the office of State Auditor as an independently elected, constitutional office. They established it to be a champion for Washington citizens and to serve as the public’s watchdog of state and local government operations.
The independent nature of the office is unique. While the Legislature has budget-writing authority, the office is accountable directly to citizens of the state. It assesses and reports on the efficiency and effectiveness of government operations.
The state Auditor’s office must conduct its business visibility and communicate its work regularly and directly to citizens so they can evaluate government’s conduct and stewardship.
It’s wrong for the Legislature to continue to punish the office because of a period of absent command under Kelley. It’s also wrong that the auditor has to go hat in hand to the Legislature and beg for funding — not to mention restoration of an appropriation already made — to do the office’s basic constitutional job.
For such a time as this, the Legislature must look first to its responsibility to allow the auditor to meet the expectations of the public. Citizens expect, demand and deserve nothing less.