Down-ballot Auditor’s Race Deserves Our Attention

Say the word “auditor,” and you probably think sweaty palms, sleepless nights and maybe a nervous tic. But the race for state auditor has nothing directly to do with your tax returns or individual finances. The words “state auditor” should, if the job is done right, be reassuring for every taxpayer in the Commonwealth.

It’s the job of the auditor to oversee how money is spent by government entities and contractors, to make sure they’re following the letter of the law. Joe DeNucci has been auditor since 1987 and is retiring. Now Suzanne Bump, a former state representative (1985-93 ) and former Secretary of the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development (under Deval Patrick) is running to succeed him.(DeNucci has endorsed her.)  She says she wants to take the office to the next step – to go beyond financial auditing to performance auditing, and actually improve how systems work. Now there’s a novel idea.

Bump has the right concept for running the office and the experience to implement her ideas. The problem is that half the people in the Commonwealth don’t have a clue what the Auditor does and, of those who do, many probably don’t care. State Auditor is at the bottom of the ballot, the most obscure of any statewide office. And yet arguably it’s one of the most important.

It’s not just a matter of, as former Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp used to say, making sure the “gazintas equal the gazoutas”– making sure that government doesn’t spend more than it takes in. Performance audits look for inefficiencies. They look for ways to do things better. They could, in a Bump example, recommend changes of the state’s health law, which has people bouncing from Mass Connector if they’re working to something else if they lose their job and on to MassHealth when unemployment benefits run out and back to MassHealth or another insurer if they regain employment. The Auditor’s office could provide a roadmap to continuity and an end to administrative fragmentation that serves neither the consumer or the fiscal needs of the Commonwealth.

So, too, performance auditing could help rationalize our system of multiple economic development and workforce development agencies, something Bump worked on as State Secretary. And it could include an analysis of the efficacy of tax incentives and the costs and benefits of  potential outsourcing proposals.

The basic State Auditor function is a rather bloodless one. The Auditor is, at core, a bean counter, and the public has to have faith in the bean counting process to make sure its tax dollars are well spent. Detached professionalism must be there, but it is only the starting point for change. The auditor has broad discretion (within professional standards) to go past the minimum statutory requirements, to respond to specific agency backlogs, particular spending patterns, and can respond to recommendations from the executive and legislative branches for other areas that need closer scrutiny. It’s these discretionary powers that make the choice of auditor particularly important.

The Auditor also has to be a good communicator, translating the department’s reports into blueprints for action. That means – forgive the pun – bumping up against entrenched bureaucracies and vested interests, especially legislative ones. Is she willing to do that? I ask. “Yes,” she says, with a broad smile, not missing a beat. “That’s what the office is about.” She is, she says, “willing to “ruffle feathers.”

Assuming people care enough to vote in this race, Bump should do well in the September 14 Democratic primary against Worcester County Sheriff Guy Glodis, who had succeeded Matt Amorello in the State Senate. Glodis has been described charitably as a flamboyantly conservative and, by David Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix as one” who has left a trail of crude comments that gives him a reputation as a piggish, misogynistic boor who would be an embarrassment to represent the party on the statewide ballot.”  He does, however, have a bunch of labor endorsements, which could help him out.

Her other primary opponent, 31-year-old Mike Lake, has a résumé that reads better than it lives. He is currently executive director of Northeastern University’s fledgling World Class Cities Partnership. He also worked at the White House as an intern at the age of 22, prior to his graduation from Northeastern. His other experience seems to have been largely in political campaigns. Again, the Phoenix’s Bernstein has researched all this. Lake is a guy who may have a future in politics, but not, it seems, in the Auditor’s office, at least not now.

In this year of outsiders, the hardest fight for Suzanne Bump will likely come in the general election, assuming the Republican primary is won by CPA Mary Connaughton, a former chief financial officer of the Mass. State Lottery who worked for Ernst and Young and was on the Commission of Judicial Conduct and will likely portray herself as a populist outsider.

Connaughton ran unsuccessfully for state representative in 2004 and is known to some for being the voice of opposition on the Mass. Turnpike Authority. She was very stirring in her opposition to increased MassPike tolls for those of us driving into Boston from Metrowest, but offered no creative alternatives to paying for the Big Dig.. Connaughton has also been outspoken in her criticism of Patrick Administration assessments of savings to be achieved by the new Mass. Department of Transportation.

If Connaughton tries to replicate Scott Brown’s success  in November, Bump will have to remind people that between her stint in the legislature, which ended in 1994, and her being named State Secretary in 2008, she worked for 14 years in the private sector and has broad support from respected opinion leaders  outside of government. She needs to do this to balance the insider image created by the nearly daily announcements of endorsements by elected officials. But its Bump’s superior knowledge of the complexity of  government that may actually help make her a better auditor.

We could  have a very interesting race for Auditor in November if it is Democrat Bump versus Republican Connaughton. People may actually learn something about state government, how it works, and how it could work better.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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