Kansas needs a state auditor, a Republican senator says, but only if the position uncovers enough corruption to pay for the office’s budget.
Sen. Dennis Pyle of Hiawatha on Tuesday requested legislation to require the election of an auditor. The position would be for one four-year term that would expire unless enough waste, fraud and abuse were uncovered to pay the bills.
“I’d like to see a dog have motivation to go hunt,” Pyle said. “And I think they hunt better when they’re motivated.”
Pyle’s push — among a throng of measures this session in Topeka calling for more transparency — comes after legislative auditors found that the Kansas State Department of Education had been giving some school districts extra transportation funding not authorized by law.
On Sunday, a Kansas City Star editorial pointed to that dispute as it renewed the editorial board’s call for a statewide auditor.
Pyle isn’t the first person to propose a state auditor position. Two Democrats running for governor said in mid-November that Kansas must have an independent office to investigate possible wrongdoing. And one Republican candidate suggested at the time that Kansas should “try out” an auditor.
Their statements came in direct reaction to The Star’s series on secrecy in Kansas government and an editorial calling for a state auditor whose duties would include probing agencies that skirt transparency laws. The issue is likely to come up at a town hall that The Star and the Kansas Press Association will hold at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Capitol Plaza hotel in Topeka.
But some wonder if Pyle’s way is right.
“I question the expiration mechanism the senator has proposed,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat who sees merit in having the position. “Any auditor should only be concerned with finding fraud and waste where it exists, and not to find some solely to justify his budget and his existence.”
Don Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, agreed.
“The idea that once you’re given rein to sort of look for dirty laundry, that you’ll just keep digging until you find something, it seems like you’d be highly motivated to label things as abuse or waste that may not really fit that criteria,” he said.
But set up the right way, having a state auditor could be a positive move, Haider-Markel said.
“Given the constant sort of rhetoric about there being waste and abuse in government, it’s a totally reasonable position to have,” he said. “And to have it be an elected position also seems completely reasonable. But I don’t see why you would want to build a potential conflict of interest into a position.”
Carl Brewer, a Democratic candidate for governor who called for a state auditor position in November, still sees the need for one.
“But we don’t pay for it to make sure there’s something wrong,” said Brewer, of Wichita. “We pay for it to see if there is something wrong. We do it as a part of transparency and doing the right thing. ... To say it has to pay for itself, I disagree with that.”
Yet Pyle said when an auditor finds savings in fraud and misspent money, “I think you justify your existence.”
“So it would pay its own way,” he said.
Glenda Johnson, of the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers, said the organization wasn’t aware of any other states that funded their auditors’ offices in that manner.
Two dozen states, including Missouri, have auditors who are elected by the public.
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. The Division of Legislative Post Audit performs regular audits of agencies and others requested by the Legislature or governor.
Abolishing the state auditor’s office 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.
Rep. John Barker, an Abilene Republican and former Post Audit chairman, said he doesn’t see the need for a statewide auditor.
“I kind of like the way that we do it now,” Barker said. “It’s non-partisan. I don’t want the auditors to be political, if possible.”
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.
Pyle’s bill to require the election of a state auditor has not been introduced; the senator is working on drafting the bill. He said his goal was to get the measure on the ballot this year.
Democrat Josh Svaty, who is running for governor and called for an auditor in November, said Pyle’s proposal raises concerns but could prompt a serious discussion about the matter.
“I don’t think the basic premise of this bill is a good approach,” said Svaty, a former state secretary of agriculture from Ellsworth. “Suggesting that the auditor’s office ‘pay its own way’ is a recipe for abuse. This is about transparency, sunshine, and giving all Kansans a voice in accountability.”
The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.