Can audits survive budget?

Members of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s staff were looking Monday for a way to blunt the effect of $29 million in budget cuts to Auditor Brian Sonntag’s performance-audit program.

The Democratic governor’s aides also were looking to strip out a proviso in the budget that lets Sonntag’s agency get back some funding for efficiency audits if agencies actually reap savings by following his audit recommendations. Under Initiative 900, the agency has received 0.16 percent of state sales-tax revenue for the audits.

“We’ve been concerned about it from the very beginning …,” Gregoire’s legislative director, Marty Brown, said Monday. He added that it tells the auditor, “Do your performance audits and get your appropriation out of what you find.”

In effect, Brown said, “We turn performance auditors into bounty hunters.”

Sonntag wrote Gregoire a letter offering to hold back $15 million of the disputed money in reserve for future use by lawmakers if she vetoes the bill.

“With this level of reduction, my office has sufficient funding to continue performance audits,” Sonntag wrote. He added that there also would be enough to do a “joint statewide performance review” that furthers the governor’s effort “to centralize information technology and other shared services throughout the state.”

Gregoire said late in the day that there will be more vetoes in the budget than usual. 9 But she also said it was not clear how she would act on the performance audits piece.

Brown said he would have little to say until the bill signing at 3 p.m. today at the Capitol.

“We’re trying to talk with the auditor right now on a reasonable (compromise) … We had cut him 20 percent; he thought that was legitimate,” Brown said earlier. “We’re still working with him on if there is a way we can make this work.”

Tim Eyman, the initiative promoter behind the audits approved by voters in 2005, says he will give Gregoire an I-900 T-shirt if she does “the right thing” and restores the funding.

Sonntag, a Democrat, has been wrangling with the Democrat-controlled Legislature for more than a month over the cuts. He wrote to House Speaker Frank Chopp in April to say the cuts were “ridiculous and offensive” to voters.

But he was unable to win over the budget writers, who were chopping nearly $4 billion out of spending and programs to make ends meet. The budget takes away more than two-thirds of the $41 million that I-900 would have directed into audits that measure the efficiency of government.

Less money means the auditor will be less nimble in responding to requests by citizens, elected officials and lawmakers for audits that help them find efficiencies, said Sonntag’s spokeswoman, Mindy Chambers.

But House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said she is sure lawmakers will find the money if they want any special audits done.

She also said the budget cuts were part of an effort to sweep up unspent money in accounts statewide, including some $16 million Sonntag will have left unspent in the 2007-09 budget cycle that ends June 30.

Kessler said Sonntag is taking the budget personally, and Rep. Kelli Linville, the Bellingham Democrat who led the House budget-writing effort, said she was saddened that Sonntag did not want to pitch in to help solve the budget crisis as other agency leaders have done.

“I’m a little sad. Everybody else stepped up to the plate. We did not harm the auditor’s ability to do audits,” Linville said.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688