Parker Snider: State auditor heading to runoff; what does the auditor do?

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Katie Britt and Congressman Mo Brooks are headed to a runoff. Most people in Alabama know that. And if they don’t, the flood of advertising that is sure to hit Alabama residents every time they turn on the radio or television will soon make it known.

Another statewide race that is headed to a runoff, though it will get far less attention, is the race for State Auditor.

On primary night, State Representative Andrew Sorrell and pastor Stan Cooke received enough votes to advance to the June runoff in the race to become the Republican nominee for State Auditor. Mr. Sorrell earned 39% of the vote, followed by Mr. Cooke with 33%.

So, what exactly are they running for? What does the state auditor do?

And maybe, more importantly, what does our state auditor not do? According to the auditor’s website, the state auditor “provides accountability to the taxpayers of Alabama by maintaining accurate records of all personal property valued at $500 and above, as well as items deemed sensitive in nature. As well, the State Auditor’s office is the only check and balance between the Comptroller’s Office and the State Treasury.”

In short, the state auditor is the state’s property tracker. Here the word “personal” is more confusing than helpful. It doesn’t mean the property of you or me but property that is directly owned by the state. Whether it is a department-issued computer, a state-owned vehicle, or the $2,200 lawn mower owned by Alabama Public Television that was stolen in January of last year, the state auditor is tasked with keeping records and accounting for any losses that may occur.

In the 2021 Annual Losses Report, the auditor’s office detailed that 240 items were lost with an original purchase price of $321,851.40 and a depreciated value at the time they were reported lost of $98,001.41. Reasons for loss include “stolen by employee,” “burglary from personal vehicle at gym,” and an iPhone that was “lost while on marine patrol.”

In addition to his or her property-tracking duties, the state auditor is a member of the State Board of Adjustment, where claims against the state are examined and, if appropriate, settled.

He or she is also responsible for appointing one of three registrars for each county to their respective Board of Registrars, which is responsible for administering voter registration. The other two registrars are appointed, one by the governor, and the other by the Commissioner of Agriculture & Industries. The only exception to this rule is Jefferson County, which selects its own registrars.

The state auditor also serves on the State Board of Compromise, the Alabama Education Authority, and the Penny Trust Fund, a state trust fund used to fund public health initiatives.

Duties like these may not be what most residents think of when they hear the word “auditor,” probably because there is not a whole lot of auditing happening.

The position of the state auditor was not always like this, though. In the early years of our state, the state auditor had more auditing duties. But in 1939, the Alabama legislature took the auditing authority of the state auditor away, and what we now know as the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts was officially established in 1947. It is this department that is the auditor of Alabama’s government agencies and offices today.

In a way, the election of a state auditor in Alabama is a bit of a fake-out to Alabama voters. The appearance of the electorate choosing an independent auditor of state government is just that, an appearance only. The auditing power, through the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts is, instead, under the authority of the legislature.

This appearance-only nature of a third-party auditor is obvious when you look at the size of the office of the auditor in comparison to the Department of Examiners. As of 2020, the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts had 173 employees; the state auditor’s office had eight.

None of our neighboring states operate in this manner. The Mississippi State Auditor, who is also elected, oversees a department of 150+ employees that truly audits state government. The state auditor in Georgia, the auditor general in Florida, and the comptroller in Tennessee are all appointed by their legislatures and yield true auditing power in their states. None of our neighboring states elect an official whose name assumes auditing powers that truly lie elsewhere. That’s a dynamic unique to Alabama.

“There are some in the legislature who want to eliminate this office,” said State Representative and auditor candidate Andrew Sorrell. “That is the exact opposite direction that we need to be moving in this state. I do not believe the citizens want to eliminate the auditor position… they want the government accountability position strengthened. Returning duties and responsibilities to the state auditor’s office has been an integral part of my campaign platform.”

Pastor Stan Cooke, who will face Sorrell in the June runoff, believes likewise. “Through the years, Democrat governors and legislators have diminished the role of the state auditor’s office to the demise of accountability and transparency in our state government,” Cooke said. “It will be my goal to strengthen the state auditor’s office and expand the role of the office and its responsibilities so that the citizens of Alabama can be served with the highest level of integrity.”

Regardless of the desires of the auditor himself, only the legislature has the power to return auditing responsibilities to the state auditor.

If the legislature were to keep the position limited in power, that is their prerogative. But is it what is best for the state?

The current dynamic, with the true auditing powers given to the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, which answers to a legislative committee, is one where the legislature is squarely in charge.

This means that the auditing done now is not necessarily to ensure that money is well spent and that government projects are effective and efficient. There is no incentive to expose waste, as doing so would embarrass the legislature and make reelection campaigns difficult. These audits are similarly not geared to expose corruption. Instead, they are simply to determine if the funds allocated by the legislature are being used as the legislature desired and in a legally correct manner.

The bottom line is that these audits are done for the legislature, not for the public.

As the candidates vying for the position suggest, it could be different.

If the state auditor’s office were to regain its power to audit, audits done on state government and agencies would be truly third-party and serve both the legislature and the public. Practically, this might look like migrating the Department of Public Examiners into the state auditor’s office. With a full staff, the normal auditing duties for legal compliance would continue. The office would also, however, be empowered to keep the legislature itself accountable by detailing how our tax dollars are being stewarded. The office would be a true watchdog for the people of Alabama.

With a state government that has been repeatedly deemed one of the most corrupt in the nation, the legislature might do well to take up this shift in the auditor’s role. Such a change would embolden confidence in the Alabama legislature. And it just might reduce waste in state government.

Parker Snider is the Director of Policy Analysis for the Alabama Policy Institute.