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Opinion | State audits and oversight are too important for partisanship

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“Auditor” may conjure an uncomfortable image of a green eye shade-wearing official combing through tax returns. But auditors, especially those who work for government watchdog agencies like the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) or Michigan’s Office the Auditor General (OAG) do work that is crucial to ensuring the integrity and effectiveness of government programs funded by taxpayers.

Jim Townsend is director of the Carl Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy at Wayne State University Law School and former Democratic vice chair of the Oversight and Ethics Committee in the Michigan House of Representatives. Dave Trott, a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is on the Levin Center advisory board.

An ancient practice rooted in accounting, government audits focus on evaluating information provided by agencies concerning their finances, operations, and performance. An audit of a government department can expose not only waste, fraud, and abuse, but also recommend reforms to improve efficiency and effectiveness of agency programs and operations — all of which can save taxpayer dollars and ensure we are getting value for our money. GAO recently reported that its 2023 audits led to improvements that saved taxpayers over $70 billion.

Michigan’s OAG likewise has a long record of identifying problems in state government and working with term-limited legislators to remind them of their oversight responsibilities. Now, however, the OAG is taking fire from both sides of the political divide. Democrats claim that the OAG has exhibited partisan bias in its handling of recent audits involving such politically charged issues as the Flint water crisis and the 2020 election, and — apparently in response — the Whitmer administration has proposed cutting the OAG’s budget by nearly one-third.

At the same time, House Republican Leader Matt Hall, has asked the OAG to audit a state program designed to help legal immigrants find housing, claiming that the program helps immigrants who entered the country illegally and sought asylum to avoid being removed from the country. His audit request ignores OAG guidance that “allegations without sufficient factual basis typically would not warrant the use of our investigatory resources.”

Gov. Whitmer’s proposed cut and Hall’s unfounded audit request highlight how partisanship can warp government oversight. Instead, Michigan leaders ought to be strengthening the Legislature’s capacity to work with the OAG to conduct oversight that puts facts before politics. The OAG, along with Michigan’s other nonpartisan analytical agencies, such as the House and Senate Fiscal Agencies and the Legislative Service Bureau, provide vital information and professional expertise to the Legislature and the public. Partisanship has no place in the work of those entities, and executive and legislative branch leaders have no business trying to use them for partisan purposes.

Instead of reducing the OAG’s budget or playing politics with audit requests, the Legislature should safeguard the independence of the OAG and work with the OAG and the other analytical agencies to carry out useful, fact-based reviews of agency performance and the effectiveness of laws passed by the Legislature.

To move in that direction, Michigan should create in the Legislature a balanced, bipartisan, and bicameral oversight committee, as proposed last term by State Senators Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, and Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan. The Legislature could prioritize audit requests made by the new oversight committee or initiated by the OAG itself. In addition, the Legislature could staff this bicameral committee and other committees engaged in oversight by shifting some nonpartisan professional staff from drafting bills to conducting inquiries. 

Giving the Legislature a high-profile, bipartisan, bicameral oversight committee with the mandate and capacity to work with the OAG and its counterparts would help turn the Michigan Legislature away from partisan inquiries and toward fulfilling its duty to make government work for all. It would also counter the dangerous trend toward politicizing an audit function that often supplies Michiganders with the factual foundation on which our understanding of our government and our faith in democracy relies.

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