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Originally published May 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 18, 2009 at 2:47 PM

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State Auditor Sonntag plays hardball over "dumb" cut to budget

State Auditor Brian Sonntag is fighting the Legislature's $29 million cut to his performance-audit program. He has asked Gov. Chris Gregoire to veto the plan.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau;

Performance-audit program

Purpose: Approved by voters in 2005 to find efficiencies in state and local governments. So far, the state Auditor's Office has completed more than a dozen audits.

Funding: Paid for with 0.16 percent share of the state sales tax.

Staffing: 41 full-time equivalents, out of the auditor's 387-member staff, work on performance audits.

More information: www.sao.wa.gov/PerformanceAudit

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OLYMPIA — State Auditor Brian Sonntag is a serious baseball fan. He's a regular at Mariners games and has a rack stuffed with 20 wooden bats in his office. An inscribed ceramic ball on his desk reads: "Sometimes you just have to play hardball."

Hardball is what the 57-year-old Democrat seems to have in mind when it comes to fighting the Legislature's $29 million cut to his performance-audit program, which seeks to find efficiencies in state and local governments.

He's asked Gov. Chris Gregoire to restore at least some of the money, saying the cut "decimates" a program that's found millions in potential savings.

Gregoire is expected to decide by Tuesday.

Sonntag has publicly described the money grab as a "sucker punch" and has thrown around words like "stupid," "dumb," "ridiculous" and "unacceptable" when talking about the plan.

That's not how politicians typically describe the work of other elected officials, especially members of their party who control the purse strings.

Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, said Sonntag is blowing the impact of the cut out of proportion. Her advice to him: "Cool it."

His anger seems tied to how he views his office, which he has held since 1992. "I know who I work for. I'm not hired by the Legislature. I'm hired by the people of this state," he said. "We are the public's view and access into state and local government."

So far, he appears to be winning the war of words. Newspapers across the state, including The Seattle Times, have written editorials blasting lawmakers and echoing Sonntag's complaint that the Legislature cut performance-audit funding by more than 70 percent.

Except that's not the whole story.

Money went unused

Sonntag says he has spent about $15.5 million on the audits during the current biennium. With the Legislature's cut, he expects to have $11.8 million in the next two years. That's 24 percent less than his current spending.

So where does that larger-percentage cut come from?

Voters authorized Sonntag's office to conduct performance audits when they approved Initiative 900 in 2005. (His office spends much of its time on more routine financial and compliance audits of state and local governments.)

Initiative 900 dedicates 0.16 percent of the state sales tax to pay for the program. But that slice of sales tax has brought in more money than Sonntag has spent. In fact, he expects to have $16 million left over on June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

The surplus, combined with additional tax revenue over the next two years, would give him about $41 million for the audits in the next biennium — if the Legislature had not cut his budget.

Democratic leaders in the Legislature say he's never spent that much before. So they decided to take more than 70 percent of the total and spend it on other programs — leaving him with the $11.8 million for the next biennium.

"He wasn't using all the money," said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam. "And just having the money sitting there, while we were cutting everything else under the sun, just didn't make sense."

The Legislature, for example, cut 65 percent of the money for Initiative 728, which helps pay for teachers to reduce class sizes. And it suspended Initiative 732, which provided cost-of-living increases for teachers.

"So what's the most important?" Kessler said. "His function is still there. We didn't eliminate it. We didn't even suspend the initiative. We just said we're taking the excess money."

Black-and white truth

The state auditor doesn't see it that way.

Sonntag, a former competitive weightlifter whose shoulders seem constrained by his size-52 jacket, comes across as a giant Boy Scout. Bespectacled and silver-haired, he smiles while hammering lawmakers.

He talks about auditing in black-and-white terms. It's about fairness and being evenhanded.

Much like baseball, he said.

"It's a fair game. There's no clock. You can't spread the floor and run four corners and run the clock out. Everybody is going to get their three outs, every inning, for nine innings," he said. "Auditing is that clear."

From Sonntag's perspective, state lawmakers aren't playing fair.

"The cuts ... to this office aren't about balancing the budget," he said. "The dollar amount isn't enough to be in that ballgame."

So what is it about?

He shrugged his shoulders.

"No one has ever looked me in the eye and said, 'Brian, you're too popular, Brian, you're too outspoken, Brian, you're x, y, z,' " he said.

Do audits save money?

However, Sonntag talked about a provision stuck in the budget that may partly explain what happened.

Lawmakers said that, if Sonntag can prove his performance audits save money, the Legislature would give back at least some of what it plans to take away, although it's not clear how much.

"I don't know who dreamed up this concept. But effectively, it is a bounty. Telling state agencies if the auditor can come along and save X number of dollars from your agency it will be restored to his budget," Sonntag said.

"It violates auditing standards. It's a direct conflict, and it creates a very adversarial relationship," he said. "What a dumb idea and a stupid way to manage."

Legislative leaders say the provision addresses an ongoing question: Do the performance audits really save money?

"That's one of the criticisms we had," said Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

"We really expect, and I think the citizens expect, that the performance audits actually do increase performance and/or save us money," she said. "If neither one of those things is happening, then I think we need to push a little harder."

Uncovered Port abuses

Sonntag's office said it's working on a report that will show how much money the audits have saved.

It's not available yet, but the office points to an audit of the state Department of Labor and Industries as an example. The audit recommended ways to improve the agency's collection of benefit overpayments. As a result, the department had a 50 percent increase in collections, worth $4.6 million in 2007, according to the auditor's office and Labor and Industries.

Overall, Sonntag's office has received high marks for several performance audits, including a 2007 review of the Port of Seattle that said its contracting practices were lax and ripe for fraud and abuse. The audit prompted a federal investigation and a Port-funded probe that identified 10 cases of fraud.

A series of audits of the state Department of Transportation, however, received mixed reviews.

State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said the audits — requested by the Legislature — came up with some recommendations that saved the state money, mainly around centralizing administrative staff.

In other cases, the audits recommended actions that required legislative approval. An unpopular one: reducing ferry runs to save money.

"As somebody from a ferry district, I could tell you that was not the most useful thing. It just wasn't going to happen," said Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.

Embarrassing criticism

Anti-tax activist Tim Eyman, the sponsor of I-900, said lawmakers are attacking Sonntag's budget because they don't like the auditor pointing out problems.

"It's embarrassing having a well-respected elected official hiring experts telling them they could be doing their jobs better if they just did the following reforms," Eyman said.

Sonntag said he simply wants to limit the damage to his budget.

"Having a surplus of funds allows us some flexibility if issues arise. Like if the governor requests us to do a statewide performance review. We can say, 'You bet we can attack that next month, governor.' Or come up with ways to audit the [federal] stimulus money coming into this state," he said.

"Underspending ... maybe it's criticized because that's a foreign concept in state government. I have a difficult time trying to look at it as a negative."

Andrew Garber: agarber@seattletimes.com or 360-236-8268.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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