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September 24th, 2018

VOTE FOR VERMONT: Accountability in State Government

Pat McDonald and Ben Kinsley are co-hosts of the show, “Vote for Vermont.” On a recent episode Doug Hoffer, Vermont State Auditor, joined Pat and Ben to talk about accountability in state government. The State Auditor’s Office (SAO) is tasked with three major priorities: conducting the audit of the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR), the federal single audit, and performance auditing of various state agencies.

The CAFR is the state’s annual financial report that complies with the accounting requirements promulgated by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board. The federal single audit reviews the state’s compliance with federal regulations regarding the use of federal funds. Performance auditing is where the SAO has discretion about which topics to pursue. Typically these audits look at programs and how they are administered to ensure effective and efficient use of taxpayer funds.

Hoffer arrived at the Auditors office in perhaps a roundabout way. Returning to school as an adult learner, he studied at Williams College before pursuing a law degree at SUNY Buffalo. He chose this program because of their critical legal studies program. For him, he said “it was a perfect fit,” because he didn’t want to practice law, so his second and third year he could take “courses that were fun.” His interests were really in public policy. To the end, he only applied for one job when he graduated, the Community & Economic Development Office (CEDO) in Burlington under Peter Clavelle and the Bernie Sanders administration. He got it.

When Clavelle lost to Brownell in 1993, he left CEDO and began doing public policy consulting, working with a number of groups including the City of Burlington, the Peace and Justice Center (The Job Gap Study), Burlington Electric Department, Vermont State Employees Association, and the Auditors Office. This gave him his first experience with state government and performance auditing. He was hooked. Hoffer ran for State Auditor in 2010 and lost, but ran again in 2012, defeating State Senator Vince Illuzzi.

Hoffer takes great pride in the work being done by the Auditors Office. “When you see a 40 page report, there are 400 pages of work papers behind that,” he said, “I know there’s not a word in that document that 3 people haven’t checked.” This is an impressive level of detail for an office with only 10 full time employees. They hire contractors to conduct the audit of the CAFR and the federal single audit, but the performance audits are done by SAO staff, which produce 4 – 6 audits per year.

In addition to required audits, the SAO also conducts non-audit inquiries. Hoffer converted a staff position previously used for communications into a researcher to pursue reports of interest. Topics have included state contracting practices, ski area leases of public lands, and healthcare price transparency. “These are the fun ones,” he said. There is quite a bit of latitude in what topics to pursue.

Where the SAO doesn’t have a lot of latitude is in enforcement. “Like the Pope, I have no legions,” said Hoffer. While he checks back with departments one and three years after an audit, all he can do is recommend changes and report findings to the administration and the Legislature. It is up to them to adopt his recommendations.

Sometimes department heads will react pro-actively to an audit finding without intervention from the Governor or Legislature, but this is not a uniform reaction. Further there are few protections for state employees who approach the Auditor with concerns about department practices. In fact, Hoffer had to approach the Legislature to make an exemption to the public records act for his office because under the law someone could have made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and he would have had to hand over the names of state employees who gave him information. While that issue is now fixed, Hoffer still has concerns that whistleblower protections for state employees may not be strong enough.

The full show can be viewed along with previous episodes of Vote for Vermont at Vote802.com.

The comments reflected in this article are opinions stated by our guest. Any rebuttals are welcome and can be expressed on the websites and facebook pages for Vote For Vermont and Campaign For Vermont.

Pat McDonald

Ben Kinsely

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