State Auditor Rebecca Otto is an eight-year incumbent, an asset in an office that requires technical expertise. She’s well-known and well-respected nationally. Last year she was elected president of the National State Auditors Association, and this year she was named one of the 15-most-influential professionals in government auditing in America. Her office has been scandal-free, and in general her work reflects Minnesota’s valuable reputation as a place of “good government.”
It’s hardly the sort of the record that makes it easy to understand why Otto finds herself in a contentious, contested primary with a fellow DFLer, Matt Entenza, a former state legislator as well as a former candidate for governor and attorney general.
The state auditor plays a crucial if often-low-profile role as the primary watchdog over the finances of local governments in Minnesota. Ensuring that billions of local taxpayer dollars are honestly and prudently managed is a vital function for which competence, integrity and fairness are key required qualities.
As presented in an interview with the Star Tribune Editorial Board, Entenza’s main complaint seemed to be that Otto’s vision for her office is too limited. Accordingly, as touted in an unusually extensive (and expensive) campaign for the office he’s seeking, Entenza promises that he would bring “progressive values” to the role of state auditor. Among issues he says he would emphasize are protecting pensions, closing the achievement gap and scrutinizing tax breaks for economic development deals.
Otto, in reply, told the Editorial Board that Entenza’s projected agenda shows that he “doesn’t understand the office.” Minnesota, Otto said, doesn’t desire “a highly partisan state auditor.”
Otto is right in her reading of how weary Minnesotans are about partisan paralysis. An auditor with too expansive an agenda might also weaken local officials’ confidence in the impartiality of the office’s work.
Because of her accomplishments and competence, Otto is the right choice for DFL voters in the Aug. 12 primary.
Nonetheless, while Entenza has faced fierce criticism from some DFLers for his last-minute entry into the primary, he was well within the filing rules — and maybe even strategically savvy to not announce too early. If, as some suspect, he sees election as auditor as a possible steppingstone on his way toward a future run for another office, he wouldn’t be the first: Examples include Gov. Mark Dayton, a DFLer, and former Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican, both onetime state auditors. And beyond political ambition, Entenza isn’t wrong to believe that elected officials can and should be ambitious in using their offices to better help Minnesotans.
But some of the issues he stresses are more appropriate for the governor and legislators, not the state auditor, to address.
And whether it is related to Entenza’s challenge or not, Otto has signaled a welcome desire to significantly enhance the usefulness of data her office has access to, as well as to create an actionable “infrastructure stress report” that would identify and quantify infrastructure needs in communities.
That’s the type of job-performance issue that should dominate the debate, unlike others Entenza has raised, such as Otto’s decade-old legislative votes on same-sex marriage and voter ID. Those are now irrelevant to the office of auditor. So are Otto’s Facebook posts defending her votes. An Office of Administrative Hearings panel threw out Entenza’s complaint on the Facebook distraction.
Otto’s recent vote on some nonferrous mining leases is germane, but not because of her position on mining, which she claims is neutral. She said that as a member of the state’s executive council she voted “no” on 31 leases in order to protect taxpayers from exposure, framing it as a financial assurance or “damage deposit” issue. Otto did show poor judgment, however, when her campaign issued an e-mail about her vote that included a fundraising link, which clashed with her belief that Minnesotans don’t want politics seeping into the job of state auditor.
The differences between Otto and Entenza are not only in their understanding of the office, but are stylistic, too. If Entenza is accused of eyeing another office, Otto seems content with the office she holds. But she should not be so content that she does not challenge herself to use the office to better inform Minnesotans about the extensive data the auditor collects, while maintaining a clear sense of boundaries about which policy questions are more appropriate for other officeholders.
Otto deserves a chance to bring her record, and her sense of the office’s limits and potential, to the general election in November.