TOPEKA — A conservative Kansas House member running for Congress, a Democrat campaigning for governor and a Republican state senator agree time has come to resurrect the office of state auditor to broaden analysis of Kansas government operations.
There’s no unified vision for how that job might be structured, but each speaks of a desire for an independent review of potential waste, misconduct and dysfunction.
“It’s time to have a state auditor,” said Josh Svaty, who is contending for the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination.
He’s not convinced the Kansas Legislature would need to surrender management of the Legislative Division of Post Audit, which has conducted audits for decades at the direction of a committee of House and Senate members.
For at least a decade, questions have been raised about whether political considerations too heavily influenced what the GOP-led joint committee decided to audit. The Legislature's audit committee, for example, recently declined to dig into activities of Gov. Sam Brownback's appointee as secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce.
Kansas had a state auditor’s office until the 1970s, when the decision was made to transfer that watchdog role to the legislative branch of state government.
Rep. Kevin Jones, a Wellsville Republican in pursuit of the 2nd District nomination for the U.S. House, said he would add auditing responsibilities to tasks assigned the state’s elected treasurer.
Under a bill he intends to introduce this week, the treasurer-auditor would confer with the legislative auditing committee about potential topics. Jones said the holder of that statewide office would have final authority over initiation of audits and would assume control of the auditing staff currently working for the Legislature.
“My proposal is to simply take what is now legislative post audit and make it post audit and put it under the treasurer,” said Jones, who believes the state treasurer’s office would have no problem absorbing additional responsibilities. “That particular entity is almost like a dormant office. If we put the auditor underneath it, I believe it can do it without any issues.”
Hiawatha Sen. Dennis Pyle said he planned to introduce legislation in the Senate requiring election of a state auditor. An individual would be elected to a four-year term, he said, but the office would be disbanded if savings uncovered by audits didn’t exceed cost of those inquiries.
“Kansas needs an investigative auditor that is answerable to the electorate for greater transparency, accountability and confidence reasons,” Pyle said.
He said impetus for his proposal was a December report by Legislative Post Audit showing state tax dollars had been allocated to Kansas public school districts without clear statutory authority.
“An elected auditor assigned to a specific task, to be thoroughly completed and reported within the four-year time frame, could potentially be a great investment,” the senator said.
In other legislative activity, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, sponsored a bill to expand the definition of state government lobbyist. Under that bill, people attempting to influence an executive or judicial branch official would have to register as a lobbyist. Currently, registration is only mandated if an individual or company seeks to influence legislative action.
Former Brownback campaign workers were hired by CoreCivic to help market their idea of building a new state prison at Lansing. State law didn't require the one-time Brownback aides to register as lobbyists for CoreCivic, which was awarded a $362 million, 20-year contract to build an maintain the new prison.
“Taxpayers deserve to know who is involved and what role they’ve played in influencing action within each branch of state government,” Hensley said. “This is an opportunity to increase transparency.”
Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat, said he was struggling to gain traction for Senate Bill 350, which would require every bill or resolution be introduced by either a representative or senator.
The measure sponsored by a bipartisan group in the Senate would bring to an end the practice of allowing lobbyists, government officials or individuals to make introductions without first gaining an endorsement from a House or Senate member, he said.
“It’s a one-page bill,” Hawk said. “We’ve not been as accountable and precise. Call it sloppy. This means you would get a legislator as a point of contact.”