BY DAVID AVERILL Editor, Editorial Pages
Sunday, April 01, 2012
4/01/12 at 4:00 AM
Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, the House of Representatives' lead dog on modernizing state government, wants to give state Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones free rein to conduct performance audits on any and all state agencies or programs he chooses.
A performance audit differs from a financial audit, which is a neutral accounting of whether an agency's books balance and its financial records are properly maintained. A performance audit goes further; it also is an assessment or judgment of an agency's management and operation with regard to economy, efficiency and effectiveness.
Murphey introduced House Joint Resolution 1075, which called for a statewide vote of the people on a proposed amendment that would make his plan part of the Oklahoma Constitution, presumably so a future Legislature couldn't come back later and tinker with it.
His resolution failed to pass the House before the imposed deadline, so it's dead for this year unless it is revived, which is always a possibility. And Murphey can always attempt to insert his program into another bill and make it part of state statutes.
This is one of those proposals that seems like a good idea at first blush. After all, what's not to like about more transparency, more sunlight shined on state agencies? And the routine financial audits that state agencies and county treasurers are subject to rarely turn up anything amiss.
But there are potential problems with Murphey's plan.
One is that it gives tremendous new power to a secondary state officer whose election oftentimes is based on name recognition or a clever campaign jingle. There would be absolutely no restraint on the state auditor's authority to pursue performance audits based on whatever agenda he might choose.
State law already provides for performance audits of all state officers, institutions and governmental entities. However, they must be requested by the governor, by concurrent resolution of the House and Senate, or by an agency head. That establishes a level of accountability that is superior to unrestrained rummaging around in state and local governments by a lone-wolf public official. Murphey's plan would let the state auditor conduct performance audits on "any nonfederal governmental entity or program in Oklahoma." That's pretty broad.
The state auditor already has plenty on his plate.
The Constitution requires that he examine the state treasurer's and all 77 county treasurers' books, accounts and cash on hand or in the bank at least twice a year and to publish his reports at least once a year.
In addition, state statutes require that the auditor and inspector "shall examine at least each year the books and accounts of all state officers whose duty it is to collect, disburse or manage funds of the state."
Statutes also require that he audit the books and records of any subdivision of the state "upon petition signed by the requisite number of registered voters" in the subdivision. That could include municipal and county governments, school districts, rural water districts and more.
And then there is the performance audit responsibility already assigned him by state law.
Sometimes in the past, auditors have been unable to keep up with all the required audits and have simply ignored some, in particular the two-times-a-year examination of county books and records.
State auditors traditionally have complained that they do not have enough in-house staff or money to hire outside audit firms to get the required job done. Murphey would pay for his plan by taking one-tenth of one percent of all state sales and use taxes. Right now, that would amount to more than $2 million a year.
Finally, and most worrisome, there is this: While there are established standards for governmental performance audits, the fact that they include an assessment or judgment of how good a job an agency or program is doing means that such audits are by their nature more subjective than traditional financial audits.
Murphey's proposal would have the auditor look for, among other things, cost savings, as well as services that could be reduced, eliminated or privatized. These are subjective, not objective, judgments.
The subjective nature of performance audits means there is room for political mischief. The current auditor, Gary Jones, is a very partisan politician. Before he won the auditor's job on his third try, he was the longest-serving Republican state chairman in history.
Jones already has shown he will go after a former Democratic state official while leaving a current Republican official alone. A few weeks ago, he released a report on his investigation of a non-profit foundation established by former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Sandy Garrett, a Democrat. It was set up to accept private donations that were used to conduct various education seminars.
Jones' report called two accounts operated by the foundation "slush funds" and termed some of their expenditures "extravagant." Those are not neutral terms of bookkeeping or accounting. They are judgmental words, pejoratives.
After his report made headlines across the state, it was learned that the current superintendent, Janet Barresi, a Republican, had a similar foundation to also receive private donations. Jones said he was aware of Barresi's foundation but didn't bother to look into it.
If Jones were just going to use the unrestrained and wide-ranging power granted him under Murphey's plan for political purposes the public would not benefit from the diversion of $2 million-plus in precious state revenues to pay for it.
Let's leave the performance audit authority as it already is.
David Averill, 918-581-8333