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In low-key state auditor's race, candidates struggle for attention

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Pam Myhra speaks at a GOP press conference.
Republican Pam Myhra is running for state auditor.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

It's not easy running for an office that hardly anyone has heard of.

In the low-key race to be Minnesota's next state auditor, the top candidates say the biggest struggle is grabbing people's attention in a year when there are also an open governor's race, four competitive congressional contests and two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot.

"I've spent a lot of time going out to the doors," Julie Blaha, the Democratic candidate in the race, said. "And I say: 'Hi, I'm Julie Blaha, and I'm running for that position of glitz and glamour you've been waiting for: state auditor.'"

Pam Myhra, the Republican candidate in the race, said she has to regularly remind voters that she's not running for office to audit them. But when both candidates remind voters what the state auditor actually does — reviews the $20 billion spent by local governments each year — their ears perk up.

"People get it," Myhra said. "When their tax dollars are not being used effectively, there is less money for the programs that they want."

Democrat Julie Blaha is running for Minnesota auditor in 2018.
Julie Blaha, a Democrat, is running for Minnesota auditor.
Courtesy of Lisa Miller

The state auditor — the least recognized of the state's five statewide, constitutionally required offices — is on ballot this year and the race is wide open. Current DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto left after three terms to unsuccessfully run for governor.

The office has existed since Minnesota was still a territory, and for years it was in charge of approving all spending by the executive branch of government. The role changed in 1972, and now the auditor pours over spreadsheets, reports and other documents to audit taxpayer money spent by local governments each year.

"This is snow plow drivers, this is social workers, this is your pension, this is getting your kids to school and back," Blaha said. "These are the things that affect people every day."

Myhra, a former two-term state House member from Burnsville, is a certified public accountant with an active license. If voters pick her on Tuesday, she said she would be the first CPA in state history to also serve as the state auditor.

She said she opposes efforts to abolish or further change the state auditor's office, which some legislative Republicans support, and she believes the office needs to be an independent actor holding local governments accountable.

"I'm a CPA and that 'P' doesn't stand for politics and it doesn't stand for partisan, it stands for the public, who have I have pledged to serve," she said.

She does support a controversial 2015 law change — which Otto unsuccessfully challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court — that allows local governments to hire CPA firms to do their audits instead of going through the state auditor. In its ruling, Myhra said the Supreme Court affirmed the authority of the state auditor to provide "oversight over those private accounting firms" auditing cities.

Blaha is a Minnesota AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer and former math teacher. She said in her work with unions, the most successful negotiations always started with a good audit.  "An audit is not only for accountability, it's also for helping build a common understanding that leads to solutions," she said.

The auditor also reviews pension plans, investigates complaints of misuse of local government funds and serves on numerous state boards and commissions. Blaha said she was part of a coalition that helped passed the last package of pension reforms, which helped reduce the state's long-term liabilities.

"I'm the only candidate in this race talking about pensions, I'm the only candidate in the race talking about the board of investment, I'm the only candidate in the race right now that seems to be talking about fire relief associations," she said. "It's really important that the next auditor knows about all parts of the job."

Blaha said if she's elected she will travel the state to find out what local governments need to work well with the state auditor's office, improving the relationships that may have been damaged after the 2015 law change and subsequent court battle.

Libertarian candidate Chris Dock and Legalize Marijuana Now candidate Michael Ford are also running for auditor. Ford did not respond to a request for an interview.

Dock, who lives in Minnetonka, has been working in human resources and technology for decades, including 20 years running his own business. He's worked on technology for 401(k) and pension plans, and he said he's been involved "hundreds" of audits over the years. He stressed that the next auditor should not be beholden to any political party.

"If Republicans or Democrats control all aspects of government in the state, voters want someone who isn't either of those to take a look at these things," he said. "The independence piece is so critical to this office."

This little-known office is one to watch: It's produced more future governors than any other constitutional office in recent years.