Wednesday, May 27, 2020
May 27, 2020

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In our view: A+ for Sonntag

State auditor will leave lasting benefits when he retires next year

The Columbian

Washington taxpayers have no greater friend than Brian Sonntag. You’ll notice we haven’t yet defined Sonntag by political party or hometown as is customary when writing about politicians. That’s because Sonntag is not much of a politician, a pretty lousy one, in fact.

But he’s a great state auditor, and for almost two decades he has saved taxpayers millions of dollars. Unfortunately for those taxpayers, Sonntag will retire at the end of next year after completing five terms and 20 years as state auditor, 35 years in elected office and 40 years in public service.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Sonntag’s independence and apolitical approach has been his desire to make the state auditor’s job a nonpartisan, elected position, rather than tied to political parties. “It is absolutely absurd,” he said in 2006, that the state fiscal cop — indeed, one who watches over about 2,000 state, county and local agencies — be formally affiliated with any political party. The very definition of auditor is drenched in autonomy. But a greater testament to Sonntag’s integrity is this lingering certainty: If more politicians were as solidly impartial as Sonntag in their service to the public, party affiliation wouldn’t even matter.

Those are abstract observations, but here is statistical proof that Sonntag has that rare ability to transcend partisan lines and build trust among voters: The last time he ran for office, in 2008, Sonntag received 64.5 percent of the votes, highest of all statewide candidates.

Those voters knew his track record, one that they themselves accelerated in 2005 with the approval of Initiative 900. That measure granted performance-audit powers to the state auditor. It is a watchdog role far beyond normal fiscal audits, a power that leaves unscrupulous public officials quaking in fear. Since then, Sonntag’s office has conducted dozens of audits of all types of public agencies throughout the state, identifying millions of dollars in potential savings. Many politicians — particularly those advocating reform — used those findings as planks in their campaign platforms.

In the midst of this economic crisis, Sonntag told the Legislature it should authorize a one-time tax amnesty program because such a plan helped Louisiana gather $303 million. Lawmakers jumped at the opportunity. Here, the tax amnesty program netted a windfall of $321 million.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, Sonntag is a Democrat. Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey, a Republican, describes him as “an outstanding public servant and fine example for all elected officials.” Kimsey has been “particularly impressed by (Sonntag’s) willingness to stand up and fight for what he believes is in the best interests of the public.” And one of the best examples of that dogged protection of the public’s best interests was Sonntag’s advocacy for I-900 and the many performance audits that have resulted.

The retirement announcement by Sonntag, 60, was a surprise to most. Earlier this year, he had been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate. He called the decision “a tough call, but it is the right decision.” And as he noted in his retirement statement, his office “put the audit focus on the most risky areas, vigorously pursued fraud, seized on performance audit authority, engaged the public, and advocated giving citizens greater access to their government.”

Final grade for the state auditor, pending the completion of his term next year: D+ as a partisan politician, C- tops. But A+ as a trustworthy public servant.