What’s the most overused word in government? My nominee is “investment.” In the real world an investment is when you spend money to make more money. In the political world, it’s simply what public officials say when they want to spend money without actually saying that they want to spend money.
But every once in a while you come across a government program that is a genuine investment – it saves taxpayers far more money than it costs. In Olympia the best example of a wise investment is the performance audit program, created by the voters with the passage of Initiative 900 in 2005. The program uses a thin thread of the existing sales tax, and authorizes State Auditor Brian Sonntag to use it for conducting performance audits of state and local government. What a comfortable fit. Sonntag is probably the most trusted man in state government, a Democrat first elected in 1992 who is guided solely by getting the taxpayers the best value possible for the money they send to Olympia. That hasn’t made him a lot of friends in either party down there.
Since I-900’s passage about three years ago, Sonntag’s office has carried out 15 performance audits, producing a ratio of 10 dollars saved to one dollar spent.
But that’s only the start.
His audits have recommended nearly half a billion dollars in savings for state government alone. You would think that a state legislature starved for every spare dollar would be thrilled. You would be wrong. The last thing that the permanent government in Olympia and its protectors want is someone spotlighting waste in state government. After all, when you point out wasteful spending and the legislature continues it anyway, they look bad. And they don’t like people in government making them look bad. That’s why they beat back every bill to authorize performance audits for nearly 20 years, before the public finally made it happen by initiative.
Last month, the Democratic leadership tried to raid the account that pays for Sonntag’s audits, with an eye on gutting the program entirely within the next two years. They were hoping to do it quietly. And true, Sonntag, like most auditors, is a pretty low-key guy. But he was anything but quiet when he showed up to testify at the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
“I view the diversion of revenue designated for performance audits as nothing short of an assault on what citizens expect the state to do when they gave us that authority and the funding stream to carry it out,” he said.
He is right of course. He is under attack for simply doing his job well, including audits that revealed the lack of concern for reducing traffic congestion within the State Department of Transportation (which is the reason it exists), and widespread mismanagement and waste in Sound Transit and the Port of Seattle.
But while Brian Sonntag has made some powerful enemies, he also has friends, primarily grateful citizens, who are now standing up to help him fight off this political mugging. Please be one of them. Tell your legislator to knock off the games and keep faith with the voters by protecting I-900 and the performance audit program. The hotline number to all lawmakers in Olympia is (800) 562-6000.