Hanging on the walls in the lobby of the Office of the State Auditor are the photos of all those who have held this constitutional position in the past. For much of Minnesota’s 150-plus year history, state auditors have fit the occupational stereotype to a tee — bespectacled, stern faces suggesting a no-nonsense Calvinism and bean counting par excellence. In short, exactly the type of folk you want making sure that governments’ accounting is sound, that its financial statements are in order and that absolutely no monkey business is going on with the public trust.
It’s unlikely many of those early officeholders would have a proverbial snowball’s chance of getting elected nowadays. Today, campaigns for the office are modern, sophisticated political operations that include energizing, base-rallying messaging about the important policies the candidate stands for. But the state auditor position is truly unique, and recent statements by would-be officeholders raise crucial questions: Just how much policy advocacy should state auditors engage in? And at what point does the integrity of the office become compromised?
The state auditor’s responsibilities were once rooted in state government budgeting, finance and accounting. In 1973, a major government reorganization shifted the state auditor’s responsibilities toward overseeing and conducting financial audits of local governments. While the office has investigative, reporting and educational duties, its mission remains centered on the core ideas of fiscal oversight, transparency and accountability. More than ever in state history, the office now performs an especially crucial watchdog function.
Over time, and in a truly bipartisan fashion, themes of political advocacy have crept into this watchdog role. However, recent candidate announcements have taken this to a completely new level. It’s jarring to hear candidates for the office overtly pledge to pursue ideological agendas and involvement in a wide variety of policy areas like closing education achievement gaps and civil-rights enforcement, when legislators have not given the state auditor authority in those matters.
Some of this is understandable. After all, state auditor is an elected position and therefore requires wooing voters. Candidates must deliver compelling campaign messages, and promises of diligent adherence to accounting and auditing standards don’t exactly tug at voters’ hearts and minds.
As odd as it is to campaign for an office by marketing it to voters as something it really isn’t, it would be rather harmless if it was all just election rhetoric. But a sincere desire to deliver on that rhetoric and make the state auditor’s office a platform for advancing political agendas should set warning bells off in Minnesotans’ minds.
For starters, the financial data and other information generated and reported by the office is considered gospel. However, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase once famously said: If you torture the data long enough, it will confess. Just the prospect of having information selectively packaged and presented to legislators and the public in ways that support a political agenda severely undermines public trust in government.
More fundamentally, there are certain areas of government that simply need to be above the political fray. The state auditor’s essential responsibilities — preventing fraud and misuse of public funds and assuring compliance with various financial reporting standards — transcend political ideologies. And if limited staff and budgets are redirected to “other” policy interests at the expense of these important responsibilities, real problems are all too likely to ensue.
None of this is to say that state auditors do not have opportunities to improve public policy. There is a continuing need to help citizens make informed judgments about how they are governed, based on the blizzard of data and complexity that modern government finance produces. For example, when he served as state auditor, Gov. Mark Dayton embarked on a pioneering initiative to improve how state investment management performance was being evaluated and communicated to stakeholders. It’s an excellent example of how an auditor looking to foster better Minnesota government can direct his or her energies.
State auditors don’t need to look like humorless accountants of years past. But they should demonstrate a passion for accountability and transparency in government and a desire to bring innovation, energy, and new ideas and investments in pursuit of these goals.
That’s what voters in the primaries and beyond should really be looking for.
Mark Haveman is executive director of the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence.