Supplemental state budget proposals released this week by House Democrats and Senate Republicans cut about $10 million designated for state performance audits. Gov. Jay Inslee took a similar approach in his supplemental plan released in December, just as past legislatures and governors have grabbed audit funds to balance budgets in the past.
This is a bad idea, although House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hans Dunshee may have one valid point in proposing the cut.
Dunshee questioned the scope of the audits and hinted that it might be appropriate to independently audit the performance-audit program to show what good it’s done over the past decade. Have the audits really saved money?
It would seem clear anecdotally that the audits have cut waste and saved money or at least led to policy changes that improved government service. One example was an audit that found computers being declared surplus prior to resale by the Department of Enterprise Services had sensitive personal information such as Social Security numbers of state clients still on them.
It’s less clear that an audit finding that highway traffic backups were costing the state billions in economic activity saved anyone a dime.
Jan Jutte, the agency’s No. 2 officer who had stepped in for Auditor Troy Kelley during his temporary leave of absence last year, said that if state and local governments adopted past audit findings they would discover $16 in savings for every $1 spent on audits.
Jutte wrote lawmakers recently to warn against the cuts of $10 million, which she explained was on top of $12.6 million shifted out of audit accounts last year. Together the cuts would reduce funds previously expected in the current two-year budget cycle by nearly three-quarters, reducing audit work and interrupting work already underway.
However, some cuts would not reduce audits, because some funds are spent to improve compliance with state laws. That includes efforts to educate local government officials on better practices.
In any case, it is not productive to make the cuts simply as a consequence of state Auditor Troy Kelley’s legal situation.
Kelley, a Democrat, was indicted by federal prosecutors last year and faces trial on federal charges of possessing stolen funds, tax evasion and money laundering. Trial begins next month in Tacoma.
Kelley took an unpaid leave of absence last year to fight the charges, which stem from his time as owner of a firm that worked with escrow companies. But a handful of lawmakers from both parties, including Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, then said late last year that they would seek to impeach Kelley, citing his apparent abandonment of the office.
That prompted Kelley to return immediately to work. Legislative leaders since said they would not launch an impeachment action in a short session out of concern it might affect the trial.
We’ve said before that Kelley should step down and, if cleared by the courts, try running again — if he has the stomach for it.
Getting back to the more important question, the audits should be funded.