Solving the legislative mystery of the auditing auditors

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March 28, 2014 | 4:49 pm

Some questions are tough to answer. Why are we here? What does it all mean?

How did a provision get tucked into a budget bill at the Statehouse?

The provision, in this case, allows county auditors to actually audit county accounts and transactions. It adds 27 words to the Iowa Code, and hands Linn County Auditor Joel Miller a prize that he could not win through a nasty three-year court battle with the Board of Supervisors. The auditor may begin auditing July 1.

Those words were added to a roughly 40-page budget bill funding state government administration and regulation. It went through a joint House-Senate subcommittee, two appropriations committees, passed both chambers, went to a conference committee, passed both chambers again, and then on to the governor, who signed it Monday.

And yet, this week, news of auditing auditors hit these parts like a bolt from the blue. Its conception unclear, perhaps immaculate.

“Honestly, I don’t know where that came from, and I wasn’t aware of that specific change until I read about it in the paper,” said Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, when I called him Wednesday morning. He sits on the subcommittee where the bill began. And he wasn't the only lawmaker I contacted who was unaware of the provision.

“No, I know we didn’t have a discussion in committee," said Rep. Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, who was the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. "I didn’t have anyone talk to me for or against it outside of the committee."

By Wednesday afternoon, Staed was piecing the mystery together. He went back through the records and found that the auditor provision was added to the bill during a March 14 subcommittee meeting. The stated intent at the time, he said, was to allow auditors to keep tabs on federal social services dollars and flood relief bucks. But the Linn County power struggle never came up.

No written amendment was filed. The idea was simply added to the bill on a voice vote, Staed said.

“It was kind of a magically appeared thing,” Staed said. “Makes you want to be more cautious next time.”

Staed’s explanation fits the paper trail. On March 12, the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency issued an analysis of the administration and regulation budget bill with no mention of auditing auditors. When a new analysis arrived on March 14, the language was included. And it stayed in until it became law.

Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Robins, who co-chairs the budget subcommittee and floor managed the bill in the Senate, also checked on the history and said in an email that a subcommittee staffer noted a discussion on flood relief auditing and a voice vote.

But who proposed it? House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said it was Rep. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, a subcommittee member and chair of the Local Government Committee. “That’s my understanding,” said Paulsen, who frowns on putting non-spending policy proposals into budget bills, but supported allowing auditors to audit.

Schultz called me while he took a short break from field work on his farm. “I guess I’m kind of excited that somebody noticed I did something,” Schultz said.

Schultz said he’s been concerned about issues surrounding county mental health funding and how it’s being spent. “Who is watching the money?” Schultz said. “I asked around and found out that county auditors can’t audit.”

Surprised, Schultz offered up his simple idea to change that. He said he had no knowledge of the Linn County dispute.

So one lawmaker noticed what he saw as a problem and offered a solution. But almost no one noticed his solution until it became law. Mystery solved.

These things happen in the Legislature. Among the hundreds of bills and amendments moving around the joint, surprises are always possible, make that probable. And as surprises go, this isn’t going to jolt the course of Iowa history.

But it is a significant change, one that probably deserved additional legislative discussion and public scrutiny. I think it’s a good change. Letting auditors audit puts another set of eyes on taxpayer bucks. Now we just need sharper eyes in the Legislature.

 

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