Muzzling the Auditor
It’s not unusual for state auditors’ offices to have some dissonance with others in government, including agencies and legislatures. One such example has received a fair amount of attention in Minnesota. The following guest column, written by the Minnesota State Auditor, reflects her perspective on the somewhat unpleasant situation currently unfolding between her office and some legislators.
by Rebecca Otto, Minnesota State Auditor
Oversight and transparency of government is vital to ensuring the people’s trust in their government. My office oversees over $20 billion of taxpayer money spent per year by over 3,300 units of local government. When problems with legal compliance or financial improprieties are discovered, we must call them out. Due to the nature of the work, we are bound to ruffle some feathers.
Some tension between my office and those we oversee is natural and means the office is doing its job. However, natural tension can turn to political retribution, which is an attack on our government’s proper functioning and an attack on public protection.
In 2015, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law that attempted to privatize the Audit Division of the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) and in effect gut a core function of a Constitutional Office. The law removed the historical authority of the OSA to conduct the audits of counties on behalf of the People, and transferred that authority to the counties themselves.
The provision that stripped a core public protection was tucked into an Omnibus Finance Bill in the middle of the night on the last day of session. It never received a hearing in the Senate and had limited hearings in the House. The Governor, a former State Auditor, warned the Legislature that he would veto the entire bill because of the privatization provision. He can line-item veto finance items in a bill, but not policy. In order to avoid a state government shutdown, the Governor ultimately signed the bill.
The OSA has been in place since the founding of the State of Minnesota. The founders understood that when it came to the People’s money, some people behave badly. In Minnesota, we have a strong system of checks that require transparency and accountability. Our state’s policies are proactive and preventative with annual financial reporting requirements, financial and legal compliance audit requirements, and a strong, independent OSA – all serving as powerful deterrents to local government missteps.
As State Auditor, I swore an oath of office to uphold the Minnesota Constitution. After the audit privatization law was signed, jeopardizing the function my office was intended to serve for the People, I filed a complaint with the courts on the grounds that the law violated both the Separation of Powers and Single Subject Clauses of the Constitution. The case currently is in the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and a decision is expected by early June.
The Legislature Slashes and Burns: Payback?
Minnesota is in a strong financial position – the February forecast shows the state having a $1.65 billion surplus. Yet the Legislature is pushing through bills that will cripple this Office by cutting funding and enacting policy provisions that will keep us from doing our work. Why?
Legislators who are championing these attacks have publicly and repeatedly expressed outrage at my decision to ask our third branch of government — the Judiciary — to settle a Constitutional dispute over a new law. During hearings, these same legislators, instead of asking about the work that taxpayers expect and local governments need or what resources are required to meet these requests and requirements, have taken every opportunity to interrogate me about the lawsuit. And they have made it clear that they intend to make the OSA pay, literally, for my challenge to a law they support.
The majorities in both the House and the Senate have presented budgets that cut the OSA’s budget. The Senate’s budget cuts all Divisions of the OSA by 7.5% with the Audit Division being cut by an additional 32%. Because the Division is required to charge for audits and the receipts go to the State’s General Fund, any level of appropriation is paid back — so reducing the budget is of no benefit to the General Fund. The drastic budget cuts to the Division only serve to limit the amount of staff, and consequently, the amount of audits we can perform. The cuts are clearly punitive.
The bill also includes policy provisions that require the OSA to pay the legal bills of those we have sued in our constitutional challenge to the privatization law, regardless of who wins; seek to choke off funds to pay any future legal costs related to the lawsuit; and tie my hands for a possible future appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Collectively, these legislative actions, if passed, will leave the OSA without the strength and independence that has allowed it to assure local government fiscal accountability and transparency for Minnesotans.
What Price Retribution?
I am proud of the work done by the highly professional staff in this Office. Legislative leadership has run and continues to run roughshod over the Constitution and Minnesota taxpayers. It matches a movement nationally to muzzle the truth tellers in government, privatize government services at all costs and roll over to special interests. It is wrong, and I will not be silenced.
Photo copyright Minnesota House of Representatives; photo by Paul Battaglia