By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—Freshman Rep. Ed Henry (R-Decatur) has proposed a bill that would place the Examiner of Public Accounts under the State Auditor’s Office.
Henry recently criticized the Office of Public Accounts for what he deemed excessive pay for the Assistant Chief Examiner. This was little more than just a theatrical prelude to HB350 on Henry’s part.
Last year, the State Legislature, led by Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tem Marsh, tried to place the Office of the Examiner of Public Accounts under what they hoped would become a legislative junta, controlled by the two men. But, this bill, SB122, died on the last night of the 2013 session due to the efforts of the Senate Democrats and a few Conservative Republicans.
Now, SB122 has been resurrected this year as three bills: SB11, SB178, carried by Sen. Jimmy Holley (R-Elba) and HB350 carried by Ed Henry (R-Decatur).
Marsh told the Senate that he must have these bills passed this session. The fear is that the Republicans will not have a supermajority after the next election. To guarantee that they can retain their unprecedented power, Marsh and Hubbard need to consolidate as much as possible under this ruling Republican Legislative Council.
Placing the Examiner of Public Accounts under the office of a publicly elected official will run the risk of turning the office into a political weapon against any rival or political opposition.
One of the most basic functions of the office Examiner of Public Accounts is to audit the books for the State, its 67 counties and the three Boards of Education.
They actually audit the State Auditor’s Office.
They are the watchdogs over taxpayer funds once in the hands of the State.
One of the vital responsibilities of the office is to find misuse of taxpayer funds within the State, Counties and Boards of Education.
In fact, the office was established in the 1880’s as a result of the misdeeds of State Treasurer, Isaac “Honest Ike” Vincent. It seems that “Honest Ike,” who was State Treasurer at the time, made off with $200,000 in State funds— that would be around $5 million in today’s dollars. Thus, the State Legislature thought it would be prudent to have an independent organization auditing of the books.
Now, the Republican leadership in the House and Senate wants to place this highly sensitive office under the control of a purely political post.
Internal documents circulating in the State House point out many problems the transfer of power.
They ask the following questions:
If the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts is moved under the authority of an elected State Auditor, how is the Department to be free from political influence?
If the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts is moved under the authority of an elected State Auditor, would the staff be hired/fired based upon their political beliefs even with the current merit system in place?
Would the position of Assistant Chief Examiner be used to reward individuals who assist in the campaign of the elected official without having any requirements of auditing knowledge or training?
Due to term limits, the elected State Auditor may only serve for 2 terms totaling 8 years. Would the Department personnel experience total upheaval every 8 years?
Would the majority political party exert pressure on the elected State Auditor to perform audits of elected officials of the minority party?
HB350 states that the “assistant chief examiner shall be selected because of his or her fitness and capacity for the position.”
The document states that, “Currently, the Code of Alabama 1975, Section 41-5-8, requires the Assistant Chief Examiner not only meet the fitness and capacity requirements, but to also have work experience (no less than eight years) experience as an accounts examiner.”
It also points out that HB350, “eliminates part of the checks and balances that are in place to ensure that the State’s finances are properly accounted for by the State Treasurer and the Department of Finance. In addition the State Auditor would not be independent and would be auditing his/her own work.”
Last year, Gov. Bentley expressed his opposition to the idea of placing the Examiner’s Office under a legislative junta controlled by two men.
So far, we have not been able to obtain a statement from the Governor’s office.
On Wednesday, February 5, the House will hold a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. in room 617, concerning HB350.