In Our View: Don't Target Golden Goose

Performance audits pay huge dividends; legislators must not cut program

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The Golden Goose is caught in the cross hairs again. Despite being authorized by voters eight years ago, and despite having identified $1.3 billion in potential savings or additional revenue in those eight years, Washington's performance audit program this year is targeted for funding cuts as budget-writing legislators wrestle with a $1 billion-plus shortfall.

That's the wrong approach. Numerous statewide and local examples testify to the success of performance audits, conducted by the state auditor's office. This investment continually pays off handsomely, as was envisioned in 2005 when Initiative 900 was passed by about 57 percent of voters both statewide and in Clark County.

Attacks upon this Golden Goose are coming from three directions. According to the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, the Republican-controlled Senate budget would trim about $16.8 million from the performance audit account, the Democrat-controlled House budget would take $4.7 million and Gov. Jay Inslee proposes a $2.7 million reduction. That's a trifecta of poor priorities. As the Tri-City Herald editorialized: "If, in fact, the Legislature is going to do anything with performance audits, it ought to give them a little more muscle."By one definition — the source of the funding — the cost of the performance audits is negligible. I-900 authorizes a tiny portion (0.16 percent) of state revenues from sales and use taxes to pay for conducting performance audits. In return, Washingtonians repeatedly have seen staggering amounts of waste identified, such as $3 billion over five years in the Department of Transportation's congestion management program, $5.1 million in "unnecessary spending" in the Sound Transit light rail system, and $50.2 million waste in the state ferries department.

In Clark County, a state performance audit several years ago identified five-year savings of $8.5 million in the Vancouver school district and $3.3 million in the Evergreen school district.

In tight budget times such — customary for several years in Washington state — we would hesitate to identify any particular state program as immune to budget cuts. But also in tight budget times, performance audits that identify ways to save money become even more valuable. And it's beyond our comprehension how either political party in Olympia can logically believe that wounding this Golden Goose advances any kind of meaningful austerity. Actually, such trims to performance audits would do the opposite: throw to the winds the opportunity to ferret out and recommend prudent fiscal strategies.

This is not the first year legislative budgeteers have wandered off onto this unwise tangent. Four years ago, they tried to cut performance audits by $29 million, the Spokesman-Review reports, but then-Gov. Chris Gregoire vetoed the action. Still, then-Auditor Brian Sonntag was forced to deal with a $15 million cut.

Whatever "savings" that might be achieved by cutting performance audits can be more than compensated for by letting this efficiency-identifying program continue, or even grow.