The Minnesota House plans to vote Thursday on a bill requiring a special audit of the over budget Southwest light rail line, just one of several intensive reviews lawmakers are seeking this year from the Office of the Legislative Auditor.
The pace of requests for audits has raised concern over the ability of auditors to keep up. There’s also worry that the end products are as much campaign fodder as they are policymaking.
From nutrition aid to rental assistance to the light rail project, the urgent requests for deep dives into programs are piling up. Nearly four dozen audit ideas have been put forward by lawmakers, with more coming from advocacy groups and citizens.
Those have landed on the desk of new Legislative Auditor Judy Randall.
“I have received direct letters. I have read about things in a press release. And I have had bills that have directed us to do work,” Randall said recently as she discussed the rising workload for her staff of about 50 evaluators and accountants.
Her comments were made before the Legislative Audit Commission, a bicameral panel that usually directs the Office of the Legislative Auditor on what to focus on. There’s typically about 10 topics per year.
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Some evaluation subjects still in the running this year: a review of Office of Justice Program grants; a dissection of COVID-19 death certificates and official counts; and the Minnesota Department of Education’s handling of grants, including to the under investigation Feeding Our Future organization. A final list of audits should be decided later this month.
“We do have limited resources, and we're trying to use them to find the places where we can have the most value. So what I have been doing is any requests that come to me I take incredibly seriously,” Randall said. “I try to communicate with the legislators that are initiating the request. And in a lot of cases, we can address things through maybe through a limited scope of a special review.”
The nonpartisan legislative auditor’s reports command respect across the political aisle. The office regularly packages findings with proposals to close gaps or fix shortcomings. Those often lead to new laws or state agency oversight changes.
Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, is the audit commission’s chair and is among those urging fellow lawmakers not to overload the auditor.
“It is the only eyes and ears for the citizens and the legislative body. All of these things hit the headlines,” he said. “When do we take action? How do we take action?”
DFL lawmakers versed in the audit process share the concern.
“When there's something big in the news, I think it's not unreasonable for members to say, 'Oh my gosh, we need to investigate this,’” said Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester. “But it doesn't always mean that it's a good thing, a good fit for the OLA.”
Liebling said there’s a balance between proper oversight and something aimed at building political ammunition.
“There's more of a tendency when it comes out of the news cycle for it to be more of a political issue,” Liebling said. “And I think that that's what we want to avoid.”
That said, the Legislature is on course this year to dictate special audits or at least strongly push reviewers toward certain topics.
The Southwest project examination is chief among them. A bill staged for a House vote contains a 17-point audit checklist around the multibillion-dollar rail project now years behind schedule and way over initial cost estimates. Senators have advanced a similar bill.
Decisions around the route, vendor contracts, deadlines and overall Metropolitan Council management would be dissected. There is a $200,000 allocation for the auditor to hire more staff or a third-party expert to assist.
Past champions of the project are pursuing the audit, including House Transportation Chair Frank Hornstein, the bill’s sponsor.
“Given the fact that this is the largest infrastructure project in state history and that we have encountered a pattern of delays and cost overruns and potential management issues, we decided to come forward with this bill,” said Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis.
Fellow project backer, DFL Rep. Steve Elkins of Bloomington, agrees it’s necessary.
“Right now, we’re caught up in the middle of an epidemic of finger pointing, which is unproductive,” he said. “The project does need to proceed and to completion. But how we do that and first requires an understanding of how we got here in the first place.”
Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said it took too long for DFLers to come around to even an audit.
“This project is a debacle,” Nash said. “It has been managed so poorly.”
The chair of the Metropolitan Council, the regional governing board overseeing the project, offered a contrite update Tuesday to House lawmakers. Charlie Zelle sounded resigned to an audit, mentioning that his staff was prepared to cooperate.
“I apologize for this, where we are today,” Zelle told Hornstein’s committee. “There’s no question that the cost increases are a disappointment. They are a disappointment to everyone.”
Last week, the House passed a different bill for $1 billion in pandemic front-line worker awards that invites the legislative auditor to scrutinize that program.
In the Republican-led Senate, calls for audits also abound.
Some surround the vast dollars quickly unleashed during the COVID-19 fight. Senate Housing Chair Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, said the RentHelpMN program should be gone over to determine if more than $500 million was properly dispersed.
“I fielded dozens and dozens of calls from people just barely hanging on both tenants and landlords on the frustration around this program,” Draheim said. “And we paid millions and millions of dollars to set up this program. It wasn't like we were on the cheap and bought the cheapest software out there. The agency spent a lot of money setting it up.”
He said he’s been unsatisfied with answers he’s received from the Minnesota Housing agency on the program and said an audit would unlock key information.
Draheim said he hasn’t gotten any assurances an audit will go forward, but he expects to see a review of some kind.
Any resulting audits from that or the other requests to the legislative auditor wouldn’t come for many months — and perhaps as far away as early 2023.