Will California’s Auditor Remain Independent?
Criticizing the California Legislature is, to use an old saying, as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.
The Legislature wastes too much time on trendy trivia, is too influenced by narrow interests such as public employee unions, and fails to grasp the economic and social megatrends affecting Californians’ lives.
That said, the Legislature’s less than stellar tendencies are at least partially offset by its maintenance of two invaluable agencies that give lawmakers and the larger public independent information and advice, the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the State Auditor.
The LAO dives into the state budget’s ever-increasing scope and complexity, and presents its findings and advice in plain language. It’s a counterweight to the Department of Finance, which shapes the budget to the political priorities of the governor, and to outside interest groups.
Reports Often Embarrassing to Governor
The state auditor, meanwhile, delves into specific areas of concern, particularly failings of state agencies and their programs, and the resulting reports of managerial shortcomings are often embarrassing to the governor. Additionally, the auditor keeps an eye on local governments, particularly the financial problems of cities, and also monitors big trends with long-term negative impacts on the state.
Once appointed, the civil servants who head the two agencies operate independently, if not autonomously, and they tend to remain in their positions for relatively long periods, sometimes decades. Gabe Petek, the current legislative analyst, is only the sixth person to hold the position in the 80 years since his office was created.
That longevity testifies to the Legislature’s hands-off attitude toward both agencies and allows them to take long views of issues, rather than bend to the prevailing political winds.
Periodically, of course, the agencies’ top executives retire, giving the Capitol’s politicians an opportunity to appoint successors. When that happens those who rely on their independent research and advice wonder whether the tradition will continue, or whether politicians will seize control.
Who Will Succeed Retiring Auditor Next Year?
Petek’s appointment in 2018 continued the tradition of independence but a new test of the tradition looms because Elaine Howle, the state auditor for the past 21 years, quietly announced this week that she will retire at the end of the year. While Howle has performed admirably from the onset of her tenure, the past few years have been particularly fruitful as she and her staff delved into some major managerial failures.
One was an almost unblemished record of failures in the implementation of expensive information technology projects. But the most spectacular was a meltdown in the Employment Development Department as it confronted a tidal wave of applications for unemployment insurance benefits due to the COVID-19-fueled recession.
Not only were applications for life-sustaining benefits from suddenly jobless workers delayed for weeks and even months, but the department paid out tens of billions of dollars in fraudulent claims, some of them to state prison inmates.
Ironically, or fittingly, as Howle’s retirement was announced on Monday, she appeared before a legislative committee for a hearing into EDD’s failures — a hearing that had been postponed several times, apparently to avoid embarrassing Gov. Gavin Newsom as he faced a recall election.
Howle reminded legislators that her office had spotted EDD’s shortcomings during the 2007-09 recession and recommended improvements but nothing was done and the operational problems popped up again, although much, much worse.
The Legislature will create a pool of three potential successors to Howle and Newsom will make the final choice. Here’s hoping that they will select a worthy successor who will maintain the office’s tradition of telling it like it is, not like politicians wish it to be.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of them working for California newspapers. He now writes for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.