Braxton Citizens' News, Opinion

Time is winding down…

The legislative cycle is as unpredictable as the weather. Both Brent and Lori offer insightful information about how the session works and what is going on. We are deeply appreciative of their dedication and experience. I know it makes for a better-informed public and in this day and time we need to stay vigilant.

This week I received a news release from Delegate Mike Pushkin, the House Minority leader. It illustrates the backwards direction this legislative leadership is often taking. Here is that information.

For decades, the West Virginia Legislative Auditor’s Office has been known as the state’s watchdog.  This office, which is little known to the general public, has been responsible for exposing hundreds of millions of dollars in waste, fraud, abuse, and in the case of former Justice Allen Loughry, downright avarice. 

It was the Legislative Auditor’s office who exposed the waste of $24 million in federal stimulus dollars on oversized routers that hampered the state’s broadband expansion efforts.  Likewise, they were responsible for blowing the whistle on more than $83 million in fraudulent unemployment claims during COVID.  Most recently they uncovered a disastrous mistake in calculating natural gas property tax valuations  by the state’s Tax Division that cost eight natural gas-producing counties more than $30 million in tax revenue.  And those examples are just the tip of the iceberg.  

Now, Republican leaders want to defang the Legislative Auditor’s Office by withdrawing its independence and weakening its powers.   Senate Bill 687, introduced by Senator Jack Woodrum, and HB 5592, introduced by Speaker Roger Hanshaw, make significant changes to the operations of the Legislative Auditor’s office. West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Mike Pushkin said, “This legislation threatens to undermine the foundational principles of transparency and accountability in state government. If this legislation passes, the Legislative Auditor’s office will go from being the state’s watchdog to being the state’s lapdog.” 

Among other things, these bills strip the Legislative Auditor’s office of its independence and only allow investigations at the explicit direction of the Senate President or the Speaker of the House.  In addition, they remove the requirement that the Legislative Auditor conduct continuous audits and analyses of the state budget, perform biennial post-audits of revenues and expenditures of government agencies, and most ominously, make audit reports available as public records.  Instead, the bill mandates that these reports be filed solely with the Senate President and Speaker of the House, effectively concentrating control of the Legislative Auditor’s activities in the hands of a few political leaders.

“This legislation represents a massive power grab by the Senate President and the Speaker of the House,” said Pushkin. “By stripping the Legislative Auditor of its indepen-

dence, SB 687 paves the way for a dangerous lack of oversight. It makes it easier to conceal wrongdoing, errors, and fraud within state agencies. The implications of such a shift are dire, as audit results — vital for public scrutiny and accountability — will no longer be accessible as a public record.”

Finally, these bills strike the requirement that agency reviews will no longer be conducted “in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards (GAGAS) as promulgated by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.”  The Inspector General’s Office describes it in this way: “GAGAS are the standards that ensure that audit reports are unbiased and can be trusted to be truthful and accurate.  It means OIG audits conform to audit standards accepted by governments around the country.  Organizations that follow GAGAS requirements undergo a peer-review from an outside audit agency roughly every three years… The results of the peer-review are then made publicly available.”  “The sponsors of these bills should be made to explain why they want to strip out the requirement that these investigation will no longer be conducted according to the gold standard of audit reporting requirements” said Pushkin.

“The very essence of transparency is at stake here,” Pushkin added. “This legislatively effectively puts the foxes in charge of the henhouse. It erodes the checks and balances that are crucial to preventing abuse of power and ensuring that our government operates in the best interest of its citizens.”

“The citizens of West Virginia, legislators, and advocacy groups should rise up in opposition to this misguided attempt to neutralize the Legislative Auditor’s office. We must stand together to protect the integrity of our state’s governance. Transparency, accountability, and independence in auditing are non-negotiable principles that ensure the responsible management of public resources and uphold public trust,” said Pushkin.

Maybe we are fortunate that we are in the final third of the session. But as you will see when you read Brent’s column this week… there still could be lots more to be concerned about.