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The legislative effort to privatize the state auditor’s office is foolhardy and probably unconstitutional

The auditor is an important position in the state; it promotes accountability to ensure that tax dollars are spent the way they should be.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen

Resolution of the budget standoff in Minnesota has come down to the status of legislation that guts the state auditor’s office. Whatever the final resolution of this dispute, one thing is clear: The legislation is foolhardy and probably violates the Minnesota Constitution.

The state auditor is an officer provided for in the Minnesota Constitution and its primary responsibility is to audit local governments in the state to make sure that they are spending their money appropriately. It is an important position in the state that promotes accountability to ensure that tax dollars are spent the way they should be. Yet the Legislature voted to privatize the audit functions, giving local governments the option to hire private audit firms. The governor signed this bill, but now seems to want the Legislature to undo this.

The governor should never have signed a bill that allowed for this. Nothing against private auditors, but this is a duty for the state auditor. The privatization will cost taxpayers more in the long run – as is typically the case with many privatizations. I pointed this out in a MinnPost op-ed back in 2011.

Conflicts with two articles in the Constitution

But in many ways, it probably does not matter whether the governor wins to get this privatization overturned – the provision is probably unconstitutional, conflicting with both Article V, section 1 of the Constitution creating the office of the auditor, and Article III, section 1, the separation of powers clause of the Constitution.

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There is a rich jurisprudence in Minnesota that carefully protects and respects separation of powers. One of the best cases on this issue is State ex rel. Mattson v. Kiedrowski, 391 N.W.2d 777 (1986). In that case, at issue was a 1985 law enacted by the Legislature, in special session, which transferred most of the responsibilities of the state treasurer, an executive officer, to the commissioner of finance. The reason for the transfer of responsibility was that the treasurer, then a constitutional officer, essentially abandoned the state and was no longer performing his duties. The Supreme Court rejected this transfer of duties.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

The court reasoned that even though the duties of the treasurer were prescribed by the Legislature, that “does not allow a state legislature to transfer inherent or core functions of executive officers to appointed officials.” One branch of government, or even another part of the executive branch, cannot act in such a way either to undermine the core functions of another constitutional part or make it impossible for it to perform its constitutional duties.

Other Minnesota cases have reinforced that point. In In re Marriage of Sandra Lee Holmberg at issue was whether a law regarding child support giving administrative law judges power to modify district court orders and to assume duties of district court judges violated the state separation of powers clause. The Supreme Court said yes, arguing that the transfer of power violated separation of powers. In supporting its decision, the court referred to precedents and decisions in other states reaching the same conclusion.

More separation of powers rulings

In State v. Baker the Minnesota Supreme Court voided a state-enhanced gross misdemeanor statute as unconstitutional because it allowed for local imprisonment without a 12-person jury trial. Here the court said that the law sought to redefine crimes to avoid the constitutional mandate. In State ex rel Birkland v. Christianson, the court declared that the Legislature cannot change form of government which would change separation of powers. In In re Temporary Funding of the Judicial Branch, a case involving funding for the judicial branch as a result of a government shutdown in Minnesota, the Supreme Court ruled that it had the authority to require the Legislature and governor to fund the courts, for failure to do so would prevent the judiciary from performing its constitutional duties and therefore it would be a separation of powers violation.

Similar conclusions were reached regarding separation of powers and constitution in clerk of court’s compensation for Lyon County v. Lyon County Commissioners. Other state courts have reached similar conclusions regarding separation of powers and legislative efforts to strip constitutional offices of their powers.

The constitutionality of the legislation to privatize some of the auditor’s functions resides in how far the Legislature may act to prescribe the functions of that office. This issue must be considered in light of the question: To what extent does this law impede the core duties of the auditor? Given past precedent, there is good reason to conclude that this privatization is unconstitutional and in a lawsuit the auditor would likely prevail. 

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared. 

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