Monday, January 30, 2017

A Full Accounting

If you've ever seen a government budget you know it's very impressive.  They are usually thick volumes with page after page of small agate type featuring line item after line item of expenditures and revenues.  Columns show the new budget amount, what was budgeted last year and what was actually spent in the previous budget cycle.  When you look at it you tend to think "Wow, they are really on top of everything financially!"

And that is why people have to wonder how things like a 300% cost overrun on the Interstate 41 expansion project and the illegal transfer of up to $13-MILLION from UW Oshkosh to its Foundation can happen.  With every penny accounted for, how does someone not notice that?

That is where the budget books can be deceiving.  They can tell you how the money is supposed to be spent--and how much was charged to a certain line item--but they don't tell you how the money was actually spent.  The budgets don't come with receipts, purchase orders, cancelled checks, bank account statements or change orders.  They don't detail transfers made between accounts or line items either.  Those are the real details of Government spending--and usually they are hidden away--deep in filing cabinets or computer programs.

What's more, those huge budget books come with very convenient summaries--that take the very small numbers, make them bigger and give lawmakers general ideas of how much is being spent in each department of Government so they don't have to actually go line item by line item to figure it out.  And it is within that impenetrable wall of numbers that those who misuse, waste or steal our tax dollars can operate undetected for so long.  They know how to work the numbers--and the sheer volume of the numbers provides them protection.

But there is a way to get inside of those numbers and to make sure that our money is being used legitimately--and that is through the audit process.  Local governments are required to have their books audited annually--and that is how the people stealing from student accounts at elementary schools or using purchase orders at the Water Works to buy musical equipment are getting caught.  But State Government is not regularly audited.  There is no requirement for that to happen like on the local level.

There is a Legislative Audit Bureau in place already--but they act only upon the request of the Audit Committee--which usually only authorizes limited action within a certain department's budget or operations when someone thinks there is a problem--or can score political points by embarrassing a department Secretary.  All of State Government operations is not audited on a regular basis.

The excuse given for this is that "the cost would be more than any waste or fraud you might uncover."  But you're telling me that having someone not connected to the DOT examine the books every two years would cost more than the BILLION dollars extra that went to the I-41 project?  Or that auditors would cost more than the $5.5-MILLION the state will be on the hook for when the UWO Foundation defaults on their loans?

It is time that we demand greater accountability from our State Government in its use of our tax dollars.  Every purchase order, every receipt, every time card and every welfare application needs to be checked by a second and perhaps a third set of eyes to ensure its legitimacy.  I think we will find the cost will be well worth it.

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