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Unnecessary job

We don't think much of the state auditor's office. In fact, during the last several elections, The Times has declined to endorse anyone for the post. Rather, we've said that the audit office's work should be merged into the Examiners of Public Accounts.

Some Democratic lawmakers agree. They've put merging the two agencies into a bill to save the state money. Still, the audit office would have a long shelf life. It wouldn't officially be closed until 2010.

Why put the merger off so long? Politics. This would allow State Auditor Beth Chapman not only to serve out her term, but to run for another one. Chapman's virulent attacks on people who don't agree with her ultra-conservative philosophy have made her a darling of the state's far right. The Democrats don't want to set off a political fire storm by trying to oust her.

But what's best for a single politician has nothing to do with what's best for the public. There's no need for an elected leader to oversee state accountants. And there's no need for two agencies to do some of the same job.

In fact, the auditor's office has had a tough time doing what it is supposed to be doing: keeping track of the state's stuff. Some 153 agencies and boards require an official accounting. The auditor's office, whose shortcomings were listed as one reason Alabama ranked at the bottom in terms of efficient state government five years ago, has struggled to maintain top-to-bottom accountability. The Examiners of Public Accounts, if its staff is bolstered by the merger, can do a better job.

But let's note a couple of caveats:

Cutting all the staff from the audit office and merely piling work on the examiners won't make state government more efficient – and it probably wouldn't save money. Meticulous and comprehensive accounting is what's needed to prevent waste – and even theft.

The Examiners of Public Accounts office has, on occasion, tried to keep some of its findings under wraps until they could be "massaged" by the examiners and the agencies they've examined. That must stop. The Legislature needs to light more sunshine into the examiners' findings to improve public confidence in government.

If

both of those issues can be addressed, the state can get along just fine without a state auditor. And it can do so immediately, not later. If Chapman wants to run for some other office, that's fine. But she doesn't deserve a public salary just because it would be the politically easy thing to give her one.

Jan. 27, 2004

The Huntsville Times