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Political Smell Test: False claim that $3 billion in waste was ignored

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Oct. 11, 2010 at 11:55 am |
October 11, 2010 12:06 pm

Deficits in Olympia and Washington, D.C. pose monumental challenges to whoever is in charge next year. Politicians have ideas for how to reduce the deficits, but some of them don’t add up. This is the second claim I’m looking at.

WHAT CANDIDATES SAY: A number of Republican candidates for the Legislature are citing State Auditor Brian Sonntag, a Democrat, in making the case that the Democrat-controlled Legislature failed to curb waste in state government.

They say Sonntag identified more than $3 billion worth of potential savings to state government in his audits, only to have the Legislature ignore his proposals.

At a candidate forum last week, 28th District House candidate Steve O’Ban said:

Brian Sonntag, a Democrat who I support because he’s doing his job well, has come out with $3 billion of savings for our state government, efficiencies, redundancies, not just in the ferry system but across the board, and virtually none of those have been adopted by the Legislature, even though the Legislature’s controlled by his party.

At another candidate forum months ago, 26th District Senate candidate Marty McClendon said: “When we were facing a $2.6 billion deficit, no other options were on the table except for raising taxes … Brian Sonntag found $3.8 billion worth of waste. (That) was not addressed.”

It’s an attractive talking point because it gives candidates an answer when asked where they would cut, without having to name specific programs.

In interviews, 26th District House candidate Doug Richards and 28th District candidate Paul Wagemann have both cited Sonntag. Richards said a projected deficit of $4.5 billion could be mostly solved by cutting “$3.2 billion” in waste and inefficiencies found by Sonntag: “That’s three-quarters of the problem right there.” Wagemann said Sonntag has issued more than 700 recommendations in his audits: “Our Legislature has virtually ignored these recommendations.”

THE FACTS: You can see all of Sonntag’s performance audits here. Their benefits do indeed add up to nearly $4 billion, and Sonntag highlighted the total in a December 2009 report that looks at the status of 705 recommendations:

From February 2007 through June 30, 2009, performance audits identified nearly $3.6 billion in cost savings, unnecessary expenditures and economic benefits.

The key phrase there is “economic benefits.” By far the largest savings, $3 billion, comes from a report he issued on reducing congestion in Puget Sound. It’s the amount that would be saved over five years — in economic impact to drivers and businesses.

In other words, it’s not savings to government. The recommendations don’t help state legislators balance their budgets.

The $3.6 billion number isn’t being described correctly, Sonntag said in an interview. “That captures a whole lot more than just what could be saved in a current state budget,” he said.

Which is not to say it doesn’t include some government waste. His December report says the audits have pointed out some $285 million in potential future savings.

So is it true those recommendations have been ignored? Largely, no. The report says 59 percent of that savings has been implemented, and 25 percent is in progress.

Much of that is due to the actions of local governments and state agencies. The audits often make suggestions directly to them rather than to the Legislature.

One GOP candidate, O’Ban, said he had relied on a reference to the number on Senate Republicans’ website. Senate Republicans say they’re looking at savings all over, not just in the budget.

O’Ban says: “I won’t use the number again.”

The thing is, it would be true to say the Legislature has avoided some things Sonntag says would save them money. He gave them options for privatizing state liquor sales and the state printer, for example, and they didn’t do either. But those aren’t part of the $3 billion in performance audits.

BOTTOM LINE: The claim that Sonntag’s audits offer billions of dollars worth of solutions to the state budget is false. The claim that his audits have been ignored is false, too.

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