By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Wednesday, March 23, the State Senate gave final approval Wednesday to the 2017 State General Fund (SGF) budget, SB125, passed earlier by the State House. The SGF budget now goes to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R), who can sign it into law or veto it, sending it back to the legislature.
While SB125 level funds most state agencies, the State Auditor’s office was cut five percent despite an anticipated four percent rise in state revenues. That cut is on top of a double-digit cut last year to the auditor.
State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) says that the compound effect of the cuts will render his office unable to conduct audits of the state’s two billion dollars of state property items. Zeigler said, “In 2015, this office suffered the largest budget cut of any state agency. Yet by conserving everything possible, we are now getting by – but just getting by. SB 125 cuts the Auditor an additional 5 percent, which would put us underwater and unable to perform the property audits on the $2 billion of state property items.”
Zeigler said, “We only need an additional $256,951 above the last cutback to restore the auditor’s budget to the amount we requested, which is the minimum we can operate on.”
Zeigler said that he is studying available options to remedy what he called “the gutting of the State Auditor’s office.” “With the outrageous increases sneaked through for the Governor’s cabinet, it is clear that there was punishment inflicted on the State Auditor’s office. It was not a question of lack of money. There is plenty of money to fund the Auditor just in the Governor’s budget alone.”
The conservative Auditor said, “It is irresponsible to throw around 80 percent pay raises to the Bentley Bunch but not provide normal minimal funding to the State Auditor.”
The Auditor has not been popular with establishment Republicans in Montgomery.
On Thursday, March 17 State Representative Paul Beckman (R-Prattville) introduced a bill, HB432, proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow the Governor to Appoint the State Auditor and the Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries. Both positions are now elected by the people of Alabama.
House Bill 432 was referred to the Constitution, Campaign and Elections Committee, and is sponsored by Rep. Paul Beckman – Republican from Prattville.
State Auditor Jim Zeigler said in a statement, “This change would represent a major power grab for the executive branch and the Governor’s office.”
Zeigler believes that Beckman is targeting him and not the Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries. Zeigler says the bill’s inclusion of the Agriculture Commissioner “could be a strategy to make it look like they are not targeting me. I believe that I am the main target of this legislation.”
Commissioner McMillan told the Alabama Political Reporter, “This issue is way more complicated than this simple approach and needs much more work before serious consideration. For example, how are registrar appointments going to be handled?” The Commissioner is one of the officials that appoints persons to the Board of Registrars.
Zeigler has been an outspoken critic of Bentley during his first 14 months as State Auditor. Zeigler said, “Having the Governor appoint the State Auditor would be the fox guarding the hen house.”
The House Constitution, Campaign and Elections Committee could take up the bill, perhaps as early as this week.
Jim Zeigler is urging citizens to contact their state representatives, especially if he or she is a member of the Constitution, Campaign and Elections Committee. Zeigler said, “Simply ask the Committee member to vote “No” on HB432, and keep the State Auditor an elected office that represents the people of Alabama instead of the interests of the Governor.”
Jim Zeigler was elected as Alabama State Auditor in November 2014. His wife Jackie Zeigler is currently in the April 12th runoff election for State School Board against Matthew Brown.
This is not the first time that the state Auditor has been targeted by the establishment in Montgomery. During the general fund budget debate over the summer, enemies of the independent auditor’s office proposed a 63 percent cut in funding for the office. and would cripple his department. Zeigler said that would have cuts the auditor’s budget from $1,072,000 to $400,000, (a 63% cut). Most other agencies, including many that are not constitutional functions, were cut about 10 percent in that version of the budget. Zeigler said, “Just the overhead costs of rent, phones, Internet and software eat up almost the entire $400,000 and leave no auditors on staff.” “This drastic cut is not designed to save money. It is designed to quiet the State Auditor.” Eventually the legislature relented on the Draconian cuts; though the Auditor’s office still received triple the cut that the other state general fund agencies received.
In the 2013 legislative session, some GOP legislators proposed legislation to fold the auditor’s office under the office of the Examiner of Pubic Accounts; which answers directly to the State legislature. This is ironic because the legislature created the office of Examiner of Public Accounts to take those auditing duties away from the elected Auditor’s office in 1939. The Auditor’s office presently is responsible for maintaining an inventory of the other state agencies. An effort by Rep. Ed Henry (R-Hartselle) to fold the Office of Examiner of Public Account back under the elected Auditor failed during the 2014 legislative session.
The Governor is expected to veto the SGF budget over his demands that Medicaid be given at least $85 million more. The legislature could restore some money to the beleaguered Auditor’s office when the budget is sent back to them.