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Muzzling fiscal watchdog is punishing Minnesota’s taxpayers

The Senate’s proposed budget cuts all parts of the state auditor’s office by 7.5% and goes further to cut the Audit Division by an additional 32 percent. The House cuts several divisions by 21%.

Although the most recent forecast showed the state has a $1.65 billion surplus, the Legislature, as I write this, is pushing new bills that will further cripple this office by cutting funding and enacting provisions to keep us from doing our work.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Government oversight and transparency are vital to ensuring the people’s trust. The Office of the State Auditor (OSA) oversees over $20 billion of taxpayer money spent yearly by local government in Minnesota. When we find compliance failures or financial improprieties, we must call them out. Due to the nature of the work, we are bound to ruffle feathers at times.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto
State Auditor Rebecca Otto

Tension between my office and those we oversee means we are doing our job. In the last two years, however, that natural tension has escalated to political retribution. The resulting casualties have been public protection and our government’s proper functioning.

Counties are entrusted with billions of taxpayer dollars each year. The Minnesota Constitution intended that the people elect an auditor who would watch over these dollars on their behalf by performing audits. In 2015, the Legislature took this protection from the people by passing a law allowing counties to control who audits them. Not only did the law gut a core function of the OSA, it improperly compromised a protection constitutionally promised to the people of Minnesota.

Equally troubling was how the law was passed. Tucked into a larger bill in the middle of the night on the last day of session, the audit privatization provision received no hearing in the Senate and limited hearings in the House. By the time it reached the governor, as one part of a huge bill funding state government, the governor’s only choice was to sign the bill or veto it and trigger a government shutdown. He signed the bill.

An affront to constitutional principles

As state auditor, I swore an oath of office to uphold the Minnesota Constitution. The founders understood that when it came to the people’s money, some will behave badly, and a strong independent office — the OSA — was necessary. The founders also believed in transparent lawmaking that allowed for checks and balances. The passage of the 2015 law was an affront to both these constitutional principles. After the law was signed, in order to protect the Constitution and the OSA, I brought a lawsuit asking the courts to invalidate it. Our case is in the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

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But the story does not end with the 2015 law. Although the most recent forecast showed the state has a $1.65 billion surplus, the Legislature, as I write this, is pushing new bills that will further cripple this office by cutting funding and enacting provisions to keep us from doing our work. Why?

Certain legislators have attacked me for asking the judiciary to settle a legitimate constitutional dispute. They have made it clear that they intend to punish me and make the OSA pay, literally, for challenging the law. But they are not punishing me; they are punishing Minnesota’s taxpayers.

Major cuts in both versions

The Senate’s proposed budget cuts all parts of the OSA by 7.5 percent. It goes further to cut the Audit Division — the heart of the office — by an additional 32 percent. Similarly, the House cuts several OSA divisions by 21 percent. Because we have to charge fees for our audits, the drastic cuts to the Audit Division do not save the state money: They only limit the amount of staff we can support and consequently the amount of audits we can perform on behalf of the people of Minnesota. These cuts are clearly punitive.

The Senate bill also requires the OSA to pay the legal bills of those we have sued in our constitutional challenge to the 2015 law, regardless of who wins. Such a requirement is unheard of. Collectively, these legislative actions, if passed, further undermine the OSA’s ability to audit local governments and call out improprieties.

These ongoing legislative efforts run roughshod over the Constitution and muzzle the taxpayer’s watchdog. It is wrong and will cost Minnesota taxpayers dearly down the road. Is this what we want?

Please contact your state legislators and the governor and tell them to stop the ongoing assault on the people’s office.

Rebecca Otto is Minnesota’s state auditor. Portions of this column were originally published at http://greenebarrett.com/guest-columnist/.

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