Late last week, Lee’s Montana State News Bureau reported on problems with state agencies stonewalling requests for information from the legislative auditor’s office. While few Montanans are familiar with the functions of this office and the vitally necessary duties it carries out, make no mistake that without it the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches of government would be severely crippled and Montana and our citizens would suffer the pitfalls of government running itself — which was never envisioned in our Constitution and should never be allowed.
In a nutshell, here’s the way it works. The Legislature writes the laws and appropriates the money for the operation of the executive branch, which is defined in our Constitution as the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state auditor (Article VI, Section 1). Executive branch officers are charged to follow the law and “keep the public records of his office.” The governor is specifically charged to “see that the laws are faithfully executed.”
Given the sheer size of government, one could credibly wonder who keeps an eye on what actually happens after the Legislature leaves town? And in that regard, it is the legislative auditor’s office that is charged with investigating and answering exactly that question for our part-time citizen legislators.
When you’re talking about more than $6 billion in the current Montana annual budget, Montana’s taxpayers have every reason to expect their legislators to follow the money and see that it is spent efficiently, effectively, and importantly, in exact accordance with the Legislature’s specific appropriation priorities. Hence, the vital necessity to obtain accurate information on state agency operations and expenditures.
But given that our individual branches of government don’t always see eye-to-eye, it’s not unusual to find state agencies stonewalling investigations into their actions. As the Billings Gazette pointed out in an editorial highly critical of the Gianforte administration: “And we are frankly livid with the administration’s obstructionist interpretation of public records laws. Not, it should be said, that the previous administration was any paragon in this area.” As the editorial accurately noted, stonewalling Legislative and public media information requests is not a partisan issue — unfortunately Republican and Democratic governors both do it.
Getting back to the current controversy, what’s worth noting is that the problem is getting so bad the legal counsel for the legislative auditor’s office told an interim committee: “Recently, we’ve had increasing challenges in novel ways that agencies have either sought to deny our access or to delay the information requests that we are making” and suggested it was time to consider an enforcement provision in law to compel agency cooperation.
As Billings Republican Rep. Tom McGillvray told reporters: “If the audit division is auditing an agency the agency should comply with what they want.” What was shocking was the comment from Democrat Kim Abbott, House minority leader, who seemed to downplay the need for enforcement, saying: “I don’t think criminal penalties are necessary but having cordial relationships with agency leadership and staff is incredibly important for the (audit) division to do its job.”
When it comes to the Legislature’s critical oversight in the checks and balances of government, “cordial relationships” have nothing to do with ensuring state agencies are following the law and spending taxpayer money as directed by the Legislature.
That Abbott downgraded that foundational responsibility to Montana’s taxpayers to “cordial relationships” is unacceptable for any legislator, let alone one in leadership. Make no mistake, the functions of the legislative auditor are absolutely necessary — and it’s time Rep. Abbott got a clue about agency compliance.