Kansas has not had a state auditor since the 1970s, but several candidates for governor think it might be time to bring the position back in a state rife with transparency problems.
Democrats Josh Svaty and Carl Brewer said Monday they would like to create a statewide office to look into complaints about shady government practices. And Republican candidate Ed O’Malley suggested that Kansas could “try out” an auditor.
Their statements came in response to The Kansas City Star’s recent series on secrecy in Kansas government and an editorial on Sunday calling for a state auditor whose duties would include probing agencies that skirt transparency laws.
“I believe an open and accessible government begins with leaders who are willing to listen to each other and all Kansans to find solutions that work for everyone,” said Svaty, a former state secretary of agriculture from Ellsworth. “A state auditor will provide an unbiased leader for all Kansans to turn to with their concerns about their government.”
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Brewer said that while he supports the concept of a state auditor, he is concerned about insulating the office from political pressure.
“Would the state auditor be protected from the whims of different administrations or majorities in the legislature?” said Brewer, a former Wichita mayor. “We currently fail to fund our schools properly despite a constitutional requirement. How would funding be ensured?”
In a series of stories last week, The Star detailed numerous examples of Kansas government secrecy, from records kept under wraps in police shootings to the alleged shredding of notes within the Department for Children and Families. The series also reported that in the past decade, more than 90 percent of the laws passed by the Kansas Legislature have come from anonymous authors. The stories have pushed transparency issues to the forefront of the governor’s race.
Twenty-four states — including Missouri — have auditors who are elected by the public, according to Ballotpedia, an online political encyclopedia. A study by the Kansas Legislative Research Department found a similar number in a 2006 study.
Kansas used to have one as well. A state auditor position was created in 1855 when Kansas was still a territory and remained in place for 120 years, according to the Legislative Research Department.
But in the early 1970s, the state auditor’s office was abolished, and its auditing functions were shifted to the legislative branch, where it became the Division of Post Audit. Its duties included performance audits, fiscal audits of agencies and audits requested by the Legislature or governor.
Abolishing the state auditor’s office, an elected position, was recommended by the Kansas Commission on Executive Reorganization, which heard testimony and in 1971 issued a report to then-Gov. Robert Docking and the Legislature.
The commission determined that duplication of audits was possibly taking place in state government and that a more streamlined approach was needed to “create efficiencies in the operation of government.”
Under the current system, the Division of Legislative Post Audit is overseen by the Legislative Post Audit Committee, which is made up of 10 lawmakers — five from each chamber.
Critics, however, say the Division of Legislative Post Audit isn’t independent enough because it’s under the legislative branch and takes its direction from lawmakers.
Republican and Democratic candidates said in statements on Monday that they support efforts to make Kansas government more transparent. But some were wary of creating more government and the costs of a new office when asked about the potential for a state auditor.
O’Malley, a Republican entrepreneur, flirted with the idea but stopped short of an outright endorsement.
“This is all about leadership,” he said. “We need a governor who leads and demands transparency. More bureaucracy is not the solution.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, also a candidate for governor, said “superficially, it might sound nice” to create a state auditor. But he noted Kansas previously had a state auditor.
“The last thing the people of Kansas need is more bureaucracy and another government agency. It is better to simply fix what’s broken, that is why I’m calling for a law to end the practice of unrecorded committee votes,” Kobach said, referring to votes taken by legislative committees where lawmaker votes are not recorded, something reported in The Star’s series.
Creating a new statewide, elected auditor would require a state constitutional amendment. Two-thirds of the Legislature would have to approve it, and a majority of Kansas voters would also have to sign off.
Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican, said the parameters for the position would need to be more clearly spelled out before he could support creating a new state office.
“I don’t know that I’m opposed to it. But I would like to see what kind of scope their job position would entail,” Longbine said.
Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Bunker Hill Republican who chairs the House budget committee, said he doubted the idea would gain traction during the final year of the current administration.
Any serious discussion of creating a new auditor position would have to take place after the 2018 election, Waymaster said. And creating a new office would be complicated by the fact that the state is already facing a school finance decision that could cost hundreds of millions to address.
“How exactly do they propose funding this position?” Waymaster said. “It’s a very big question. I’m not saying the position may not be warranted. I’m saying given the fiscal situation that the state of Kansas is in, how do we fill this position?”
The Legislature could take other steps short of creating an elected position.
Ron Keefover, president of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, said the Legislature could establish a commission that would name an auditor to investigate transparency issues.
“An elected position would raise questions of partisanship, but I think other states have avoided it by having open government commissions established,” Keefover said.
The Kansas Attorney General’s office is tasked with investigating — and prosecuting — violations of the state’s open records and open meetings laws. The office also holds periodic training courses.
But as a prosecutor, the attorney general is confined to violations of the law. The office does not report on conduct that falls short of legal violations but is still concerning or not in line with best practices.
Cille King, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said her group likes the idea of a state auditor.
“If the position was elected and not appointed and they were free to look into whatever they felt needed to be looked into, then yes, it sounds really good,” she said.
But Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, said he wasn’t so sure an auditor was the best way to address the transparency problems highlighted in The Star’s series.
“I think the first answer is for the Legislature to enact rules and perhaps statutes that prohibit the behavior that they engage in,” he said. “The idea that there are no sponsors on any bills, that’s easy to fix. You don’t need a state auditor to fix that. You don’t need a state auditor to change the rules on proper notification of meetings. Those things can be done by a Legislature that puts a priority on transparency and respect for the public ahead of political aim.”