Auditing Versus The Auditor

Governmental auditing and oversight is extremely important -- as sage political scientist Seth Masket explains today, when this function is lax you end up with Senator Palpatine diverting quintillions from the Republic's budget to secretly fund construction of a Death Star.

(I would add that this example also illustrates the importance of a vibrant free press, which had clearly withered to irrelevancy by that time. The Globe Spotlight Team would have exposed the Death Star. Things might have unfolded differently; at the least, there would have been hearings.)

I feel reasonably confident that the fraud, waste, and abuse in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts does not yet rise to the secret Death Star level -- and I will avoid insinuating any analogy between Senate President Therese Murray and the evil Emperor who channels the dark side of the force.

Still, it's important. And pretty much everybody agrees it was less than stellar under state auditor Joe DeNucci during the latter part of his thousand-year reign. And there is always great institutional resistance to increasing that role, because one person's Death Star is another person's patronage haven.

So it's definitely newsworthy that Murray is introducing a plan to have the Department of Administration and Finance conduct periodic reviews of state agencies, as she revealed to the Boston Herald for today's paper.

What's a little odd is that she appears to be claiming in that article that no such reviews are currently conducted. In fact, that's exactly what the state auditor's office is tasked with -- and newly elected auditor Suzanne Bump certainly campaigned on greatly enhancing her office's role in reviewing the exact kind of budget, management, and efficiency issues Murray seems to be talking about.

In fact, the auditor is required to conduct those reviews far more frequently than Murray is apparently calling for under this new plan.

It would be tempting to interpret this as a shot across Bump's bow, and it might very well be. Bump, after all, has been very publicly demanding that the state legislature pass a law giving her the authority to audit the legislature itself, which currently nobody has the power to do. Murray and her colleagues have no intention of offering themselves up for such oversight, so the more Bump pushes it, the worse Murray looks.

Perhaps, then, Murray is trying to essentially shift the auditing function away from the auditor, a constitutional office, and into the executive branch -- presumably followed by a dramatic decrease in funding for the now-unnecessary auditor's office, to offset the cost of this new A&F team. Take that, Bump.

What little I hear so far sounds like that's not Murray's big plan. (Although I do hear that Bump's office was not exactly in-the-loop about Murray's proposal.) What it sounds like to me is that Murray is trying to get out front of the reforming-government PR battle, which she's been losing.

In particular, House Speaker Bob DeLeo, after initially looking indifferent to the alliterative patronage/probation/parole fiascos, has jumped out with a Big Plan for reform -- a plan that Murray has made clear is unwelcome in her chamber.

So here we are, just as the House is finishing up with its version of the budget, and out comes Murray with this Bigger Bolder Plan for reform, taking the long view of maximizing efficiency and reducing waste and abuse everywhere throughout the government.

I can't imagine how this is supposed to work, but I guess we'll find out shortly and I don't want to be too harsh without knowing the details. But I am absolutely stumped for a reason why it would be better to place the function within the executive branch, directly under the governor, rather than in the independent, separately-elected, constitutionally defined office of state auditor.

It's like establishing a huge oversight office in the office of Emperor Palpatine -- wouldn't it be just another pot of money for him to misuse? Is Terry Murray contributing to the Death Star?

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