Eyman's Good Idea

Tim Eyman, the initiative guru liberals love to hate, is back. After a lackluster 2004, during which he backed a failed gambling measure that was far afield from his usual turf, Eyman will in all likelihood have two initiatives on the ballot in 2005.

Oddly enough, both are good ideas.

One, Initiative 905, is a straightforward effort to protect the initiative process; it would require that any changes the Legislature makes to the process also are submitted to voters for approval. If the initiative process is, in fact, flawed enough to require "fixing"—and for all the grief Eyman has caused state government, most of his measures have enjoyed solid voter support—legislators should be able to sell that fix to voters. That's fair.

The more interesting initiative, however, is I-900, which Eyman, with characteristic understatement, has dubbed "the 900-pound gorilla." It would set aside $10 million a year in state sales-tax revenue for the state auditor to conduct independent performance audits of state, county, and local agencies.

Suspicious as I am of Eyman's intentions, I cannot for the life of me think of a reason this would be a bad thing.

While calls for audits are a bipartisan staple of Olympia politicians, the audits themselves rarely happen. Even more rarely are they performance audits measuring not only how the money is spent but whether it could be spent more effectively. Right now, they're actually illegal. I-900 would give the state auditor— presently a Democrat, Brian Sonntag—a tremendous bully pulpit to encourage legislators to find cost savings or reform moribund agencies.

Equally important is the impact on legislative sessions, like this year's, during which the state budget deficit is so profound and the cuts already so deep that Democrats are calling tax increases "unavoidable." That would be a far more persuasive sell to skeptical voters if they had evidence that agencies had been audited and were, in fact, already spending their dollars effectively. It could potentially remove the perennial Republican shibboleth of wasteful government spending.

Unless, of course, the spending is wasteful. Or incompetent. Or both. Department of Social and Health Services, are you paying attention?

House Democratic leader Frank Chopp has his own audit measure, HB 1064, a bill that has just passed the House and is considerably less sweeping than Eyman's. Eyman is quick to dismiss the House bill: "Twenty or 30 years' worth of debate in Olympia has proven that they're not going to put a bill that has any kind of teeth in it into law. . . . What the House passed is a citizen committee—the citizens all handpicked cronies of the people in Olympia—and a nonvoting member, the state auditor. [Our bill] would just let the state auditor go."

The other difference between the House bill and I-900 is that the latter also covers local agencies. Current law allows state auditors to do financial audits but not performance audits. They can measure efficiency, but not effectiveness. Measuring effectiveness, in auditor's terms, is standardized, using federal General Accounting Procedures.

The one qualm I have in all this is the tremendous amount of discretionary power Eyman's measure gives the state auditor. He or she can pick and choose which agencies or departments to audit, and it's hard to believe that process won't be politicized at some point.

But that's the nature of independent audits. You want someone as neutral as possible making those decisions, and Sonntag, a fixture in Olympia, is widely regarded as competent and professional. Someone has to make those decisions. Better the auditor, elected by voters, than some body that owes its appointed power to partisan politicians.

Sonntag himself has been critical of Eyman's initiative; he doesn't want that much power. Ultimately, however, the power rests with the Legislature; it, not Sonntag, decides what to do with the information audits provide. And the real influence comes not from the audits themselves but, as with the federal Internal Revenue Service, from the possibility of audits.

Any local agency would know that it could be next.

Ultimately, audits are a wonkish idea, something people who care about state government pay attention to, but one the general public might not care about. But if this initiative came from anyone else, it would be seen as a good government reform. Instead, because it's Eyman, politicians and editorial boards have been suspicious. But I-900 is what it is— a reform that would allow an independent arm of government to check the effectiveness of other arms.

Quibble with the details, but it's hard to see why that wouldn't be a good idea.

gparrish@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus