State Auditor Rebecca Otto and her Republican adversaries in the Legislature continued their long-standing, frequently hostile dispute Wednesday over the powers of her constitutional office — and its budget.
While the hearing stayed civil on the surface, it bubbled with the simmering animus of an ugly divorce mediation. The laughs were few and mirthless, the smiles chilly as DFLer Otto defended a lawsuit she has filed against three Minnesota counties that stems from a 2015 measure to strip some of her authority. “It’s never been personal,” said Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, who has been one of Otto’s chief critics in the House GOP.
But it might have seemed so at times as Otto jousted with Republicans over her lawsuit, which already has cost the state more than $250,000. That figure is certain to climb because Otto has appealed an initial court ruling that sided with the counties, which took advantage of that 2015 law to pass on Otto’s audit services and instead use private audit firms.
First elected in 2006, Otto leads an office traditionally charged with looking after local government spending. The auditor’s office charges counties for its services, which means it loses money if counties opt for the private sector.
The law that Otto is now challenging in court passed with bipartisan support as part of a much larger spending package and was signed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. He took Otto’s side in the dispute but declined to take down the entire spending bill in order to block the provision she found objectionable.
The whole suing the state thing didn’t go over too well at the Legislature, now in the midst of setting the next two-year budget. Otto — who has announced she is running for governor in 2018 — argued that allowing private audits denies her office money needed to fulfill its constitutional duties. Minnesotans, she said, would be left without a taxpayer advocate to watch local government spending.
Otto’s chief legislative antagonist has been Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, who chairs the State Government Finance Committee. A typical exchange Wednesday went like this:
Anderson: “Madame Auditor, I would like you to answer the original question: What didn’t get done because you had to use the money for the lawsuit?”
Otto: “We’ve gotten everything done, Madame Chair.”
Anderson: “So you’re saying you don’t really need the money?”
The 2015 law was a classic bureaucratic shiv. Anderson has been ruthlessly twisting it ever since.
At one point, Otto gave a disquisition on her office that was meant to explain where she found the money for the lawsuit.
“To make sure I can carry out my duties and honor my oath of office to defend the Constitution and the people who elected me, we have had to scrimp and save to ensure we can go to the courts, which is one of our branches of government, to help us interpret a law, which is one of their jobs — they’re one of the three branches of government in our Constitution — and so there are times when we have salary savings that are unexpected.”
She also reminded them a few times that the voters statewide elected her three times.
Republican lawmakers looked less than riveted by the civic instruction. But Otto looked unfazed, using the lawsuit to help burnish her political persona as she pursues DFL standing ahead of her run for governor.
On it went, with Anderson resting her chin on her hand, occasionally laughing or smiling in a way that signaled incredulity rather than enjoyment.
At times, Otto declined to answer questions on the advice of her general counsel, citing the ongoing litigation. The ambient hum inside the State Office Building droned on.
After tearing into Otto’s budget, lawmakers moved on to discuss bills that were equally hostile to its operations. One would limit her ability to spend state money on the lawsuit, while two others would help the counties pay their legal bills in their battle with Otto.
Members of Otto’s own party might be expected to come to her aid. But the drubbing went on for 90 minutes before a DFLer finally offered up a softball question.
Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, represents Becker County, one of the three counties Otto is suing. He’s sponsoring a bill that would divert state funds to pay the counties’ legal bills as they defend against Otto, which are now in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Otto endorsed the idea of using state money to pay her legal opponents.
Marquart, who supported the 2015 legislation, said he has no regrets: “Yeah, I know back home, I’m not hearing any support for the auditor’s office on this.
“The bottom line is, this is costing taxpayers a lot of money at this point,” he said.
Asked if he would support her run for governor, Marquart laughed. “I won’t comment on that,” he said.