Give the money back to audit program

State lawmakers have insulted the intelligence of voters by passing a two-year budget that strips $29 million from the state performance audit program.

If she cares a whit about government accountability, Gov. Chris Gregoire will do the right thing and veto that section of the budget.

State Auditor Brian Sonntag said the legislative decision to cut 74 percent of the performance audit funds is “shortsighted — that’s my polite term for it. If this budget stands, the effectiveness of the performance audit program is destroyed,” Sonntag said.

Yes, he suspects the legislative decision might be political retribution. Sonntag dared to appear at the late-session tea party staged on the steps of the Legislative Building by thousands of people protesting government spending priorities. Sonntag’s appearance obviously rankled some Democrats who wrote the budget.

Sonntag said: “With the huge issues the Legislature had to deal with, and a $9 billion budget deficit and all, it seems hard to believe they would stoop to petty political stuff with the state audit. Holy cow! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at how petty politics can get, after all, I’ve been around it my whole life. But people continue to surprise me.”

The simple truth is the public wants government accountability. They want reassurances — from independent audits — that their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent wisely and efficiently and producing intended results.

Many politicians and government bureaucrats, on the other hand, are not fans of performance audits. Some see them as meddlesome intrusions into their programs. Some bureaucrats believe they have all the answers and know what’s best. They resent public intrusions.

Remember, it wasn’t the politicians who created the performance audit program in this state. It was the people through the power of the initiative process.

In 2005, more than 56 percent of the voters passed Initiative 900 which gave Sonntag’s office performance audit authority. The initiative has a dedicated funding source, placing 0.16 percent of the state’s portion of sales and use tax collections into a state treasury account to be used for performance audits.

To date, 15 performance audits of state and local governments have been completed. They have produced a ratio of $10 saved to every $1 spent. For state government alone, the audits have recommended nearly $500 million in potential savings. If there’s a flaw in the performance audit program, it’s the lack of follow-through by government officials and lawmakers. Too often, the auditor’s recommendations don’t generate the action necessary to bring about the cost savings. While some agencies embrace change, others resist. Sonntag realizes with a $9 billion budget deficit, cuts were necessary across all of state government. He worked with Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee — authors of the state budget. Sonntag said he had agreed to take cuts in the range of $12 million to $15 million. He was caught completely off guard when the final budget cut $29 million — 74 percent of the performance audit’s entire budget. With contracts for audits already under way, Sonntag said a worst- case scenario would see the program out of money in September, just three months into the 24-month budget cycle.

The Legislature’s action “screams to the public, ‘We’re not really interested in reform,’ ” Sonntag said. “We can all cut. We can all cut budgets and whack away. But if they’re going to destroy the only real government tool to address government reform, that’s very shortsighted.”

The onus is now on Gov. Gregoire, who has two options: She can let the $29 million budget cut stand, or she can veto all or portions of the budget language on performance audit. This is a test of Gov. Gregoire’s true commitment to government accountability and government reform. It’s an opportunity to test rhetoric versus action.

Let’s hope the governor passes the test. As Sonntag says, “We owe the public better than the budget that has been adopted.”