Budget crunch may hit constitutional offices hard

Normally a meeting of the state Senate’s Finance — State Government Budget Division Committee wouldn’t be high on a reporter’s to-do list at the Capitol. On Wednesday, the group’s agenda called for a review of the budgets of the state’s constitutional offices: state auditor, secretary of state and attorney general.

But given the recent controversy surrounding Attorney General Lori Swanson’s office, one media gawker might be forgiven for hoping such an arcane meeting might come with fireworks.

Alas, it was not to be, because Swanson sent someone from her office in her stead. But the brief testimony from all three offices put some of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget cuts into focus. Facing a $935 million budget shortfall, T-Paw has understandably looked to trim and save anywhere he can, and has proposed reducing the budgets of the constitutional offices by 4 percent.

Losing jobs
State Auditor Rebecca Otto said such a cut would translate into a loss of about $369,000, which doesn’t sound like much, but she pointed out that the operation is already lean and mean. “Eighty-nine percent of our budget is for personnel,” Otto said, adding that her office doesn’t own any buildings and only issues paper reports upon request. “But we would lose five positions — that’s a whole division in our office.”

Otto, who blazed through a PowerPoint presentation — “I like to be brief,” she said — pointed out that the office oversees municipal and local governments, and in a time of economic downturn, there often are increases in fraud at the local level. The time is now for more oversight, and “I cannot afford to lose a single body in the office,” she said.

Rebecca Spartz, director of administration in the attorney general’s office, painted a similarly grim picture, should there be a  4 percent budget reduction. That would translate to about $1 million and 20 jobs, including six attorneys, according to Spartz. One could joke that in time, given the turnover in the office under the beleaguered Swanson, those six attorneys would leave on their own. But nobody was really in a joking mood.

‘I voted’ stickers: RIP?
Tom Durand, assistant secretary of state — rather than his superior, Mark Ritchie — gave his office’s presentation. Durand said the cuts would cost the office about $260,000, which would roughly equal five to seven employees. But Durand warned that some cuts may not be feasible, though they certainly seem inevitable at this point.

“We’re tied up because of the Help America Vote Act,” Durand said of the national program that was developed after the 2000 election debacle. “The state has to maintain a level for election spending, and a certain amount on elections for the future.”

Durand also noted that any cuts this year would be untimely, given the high interest and likely high turnout for the presidential and U.S. Senate races. Still, Durand gamely offered one place for cuts.

“The ‘I voted’ stickers would have the biggest savings and the least impact,” Durand concluded, saying the office started distributing them at polling places 25 years ago. “It’s a nice thing we do. It’s something people expect, but it might be a little luxury.”

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Rich Goldsmith on 03/21/2008 - 05:33 pm.

    I’ve always found it somewhat fascinating that in the majority of cases, when proposing budget cuts, government executives rarely take a reality check on what they’re proposing. Given the Sec of State’s key role in elections, and the massive turnout we’re likely to see this year, maybe it’s not the time to hack a chunk off that group’s budget?

    And as for the state auditor, I think in light of the scandals and budget situations we’ve seen — from city councils to new construction projects, cutting Otto’s budget is one of the more asinine moves a conservative governor could make.

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