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Gary Jones

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The Oklahoman Editorial

LEGISLATIVE leaders apparently weren’t thrilled with the idea of giving the state’s auditor and inspector the resources and the latitude to run a magnifying glass over state agencies.

Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones had hoped voters could decide in November whether to amend the state constitution to allow his office to initiate performance audits of state agencies. Currently such audits must be requested by the governor, the agency’s director or the Legislature. As a result, they rarely happen.

That will continue to be the case. A House joint resolution (and a companion in the Senate) requesting a vote of the people recently died quietly without being heard on the House floor. If leadership had backed the bill, it almost certainly would have gone to the full body for consideration.

A survey in January by SoonerPoll.com found that nearly 75 percent of likely Oklahoma voters favored Jones’ idea. He proposed paying for the performance audits through dedication of one-tenth of 1 percent of state sales tax revenue, about $2 million per year.

There may have been concerns that this change would give the auditor too much power. But if state agencies are spending taxpayer money properly, they should welcome the scrutiny.

Lawmakers are usually more than willing to let voters decide issues. It’s disappointing they chose not to this time around.

Read more: NewsOK.com

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Last week, State Representative Jason Murphy, (R-Guthrie), Chairman of the House Government Modernization Committee, said he plans to introduce a Joint Resolution in the next legislative session which would place a state question on the November 2012 ballot amending the State Constitution to allow for the State Auditor to have that authority.

“It is vital for the State Auditor to have the tools to thoroughly expose the inefficient and antiquated processes that are conducive to wasting taxpayer funds and corruption,” Murphey said. “Current policy subjects the ability of the Auditor to conduct performance audits to the whims of state politicians or the very bureaucrats who are being audited. This proposal will allow the Auditor to make the decision to audit based on need, not on political influence, funding or bureaucratic resistance.”

First, it seems perfectly logical the Oklahoma State Auditor should have the authority to audit any Oklahoma state agency, entity or organization that receives taxpayer money. The Auditor’s office should also be able to audit any group benefits from a state tax credit. Actually it is surprising only 75% of Oklahoma voters agreed with that premise. If the proposal to expand the scope of the auditor’s office reaches Oklahoma voters next year, it will pass overwhelmingly.

Second, it seems ridiculous that we have a system that allows state agencies to decide whether or not they want to be audited. Currently state agencies have ‘internal’ auditors who report to the agency head. That violates any general accepted accounting practice. An auditor must maintain independence (in fact and appearance) in all matters related to the audit.

Most privately held companies hire external audit firms to look at their financial records to receive an objective assessment. Public companies listed on stock exchanges in the United States are subject to the Sarbanes- Oxley Act (SOX) which imposes stringent requirements that those companies have ‘external’ auditors evaluate their internal controls and financial reporting. For state agencies to not be as accountable as publicly traded companies is ludicrous. Taxpayers have a right to know where and how their money is being spent.

Third, those critical of making the Auditor’s office more powerful believe it is growing government. That is true- expanding the role of the Auditor’s office will necessitate a larger staff and budget for the agency. But if we truly want accountability of our state tax dollars, this is the right thing to do. Agency heads who oppose expanding the Auditor’s scope and responsibility should explain their reasoning. It raises a red flag when a state agency head doesn’t want outside eyes looking at their books.

In years past, the Oklahoma State Auditor’s office has uncovered hundreds of millions of fraud and corruption in local and state government. In 1980, Tom Daxon was the first Republican to be elected State Auditor in Oklahoma. Daxon cooperated with the FBI in 1981 in its probe of Oklahoma county commissioners. By the end of the federal investigation in 1984, more than 200 people (mostly county commissioners) from 60 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties had been convicted of crimes. Most were convicted of taking kickbacks paid by suppliers on orders for county road-building supplies. More than 70 sitting commissioners had to resign in connection with the probe. 69 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties had commissioners resign in the wake of the probe, and 13 counties lost all three of their commissioners in connection with the scandal. There are dozens of other examples of fraud and corruption the Auditor’s office- under both Republican and Democrat leadership- has uncovered through the years.

Expansion of the duties and authority of the Oklahoma State Auditor’s office is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It is a prudent common sense move that will insure Oklahoma tax dollars are being spent where and how they are supposed to be.

Steve Fair is a guest political analyst and commentator at SoonerPoll.com.  Steve is Chairman of the 4th district of the Oklahoma Republican Party and the author of  the popular blog Fair and Biased.

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A majority of likely Oklahoma voters would support legislation to give the state auditor the legal authority to initiate systematic performance audits on any or all state agencies, a recent SoonerPoll study shows.

Results indicate that 74.2 percent of likely Oklahoma voters polled would support such legislation, 56.6 percent said they would “strongly support” it.  Only 16.4 percent said they would oppose the legislation, while 9.4 had no opinion.

Government Auditing Standards define a performance audit as “an objective and systematic examination of evidence to provide an independent assessment of the performance and management of a program against objective criteria.” Put simply, performance audits indicate areas in which state agencies can improve operations and spend taxpayer dollars more wisely.

Currently, Oklahoma state law does not authorize the Oklahoma State Auditor & Inspector to initiate performance audits.

According to State statutes, the auditor can only begin an audit “upon receiving a written request to do so by the Governor, the chief executive officer of a governmental entity or pursuant to a concurrent resolution of the legislature.”

“Most Oklahomans want their state government to continue to look for ways to provide greater transparency,” said Bill Shapard, CEO of SoonerPoll.com. “I think most Oklahomans realize there is something inherently wrong with a system that allows agencies to decide whether or not they want to be audited.”

Shapard said it makes sense that only agencies with nothing to hide would volunteer to be audited.

“The fundamental mission of the State Auditor is to make sure that taxpayer money is spent wisely in every state agency, not just the ones that ask for an audit,” Shapard said.

Additional crosstab analysis reveals that 76.1 percent of Democrats and 70.9 percent of Republicans said they would support the legislation.  According to crosstab data, 74 percent of both liberals and conservatives favor the legislation.

“The bipartisan nature of the results just goes to prove that regardless of whether a person advocates for a big government or a small government, they want that government to be transparent about how money is spent,” Shapard said.

SoonerPoll.com, Oklahoma’s public opinion pollster, commissioned and conducted the scientific study using live interviewers by telephone of 512 likely voters from Nov. 17 – Dec. 6. The study has a margin of error of ± 4.3 percent.

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