This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
The beauty of Washington’s performance audits is that they need not please budget writers in the state Legislature to keep the money coming.
At least that’s the theory.
The same 2005 Tim Eyman initiative that authorized the reviews of state programs’ efficiency also established a dedicated funding source. A sliver of the state sales tax flows automatically into a special account.
Unfortunately, the arrangement does not offer complete autonomy. Auditor Brian Sonntag may not have to ask lawmakers for funding, but he is finding himself increasingly on the defensive to keep what he has.
Sonntag requested and received a gubernatorial veto in 2009 when legislators attempted to sweep $29 million from performance audits.
As a concession to the state’s fiscal crisis, Sonntag agreed to let lawmakers have $17 million the following year.
Now lawmakers are back for more. The Legislature’s budget transfers an additional $8 million out of the performance audit fund to pay for welfare fraud investigations and tax recovery auditors in other departments.
The raid is particularly galling given that performance audits were a hero of the 2011 session.
Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget adopted a business tax amnesty program suggested by a performance audit, figuring the state could bring in $24 million to help balance the books.
The state collected ten times that much, money that paved the way for the Senate and House to resolve the differences in their spending plans.
Gratitude may be a luxury the state can ill afford, but it shouldn’t have been too much to expect that lawmakers would at least leave the performance audit fund alone.
Some performance audits would continue even if one-third of the funding goes missing, but the transfer would set a precedent that would encourage future raids.
Performance audits have saved the state hundreds of millions, yet they often vex lawmakers who know that adopting audit suggestions is not as easy as it looks and bound to anger powerful constituencies.
Sonntag suggests that instead of compromising performance audits’ independence, the state pay for welfare abuse investigators and tax collectors with the money those employees recoup.
Two years ago, Gregoire helped remind state lawmakers that performance audits are never more important than when the state budget is in a bind. She can underscore that message by again vetoing lawmakers’ attempts to tap the audit fund.