On March 20, Tim Eyman kicked off signature gathering for his latest initiative, I-900, which would mandate performance audits of government programs. One guest that night at Salty's in West Seattle stood out from the usual Eyman crowd of anti-Olympia zealots: state Auditor Brian Sonntag, a Democrat. In fact, Sonntag's appearance at the Eyman shindig was so noteworthy that master of ceremonies David Boze, a host at conservative-talk station 770 KTTH, jokingly referenced it. "Brian Sonntag is the only guy I know who'd come as guest of honor to a campaign kickoff for an initiative he didn't even support," Boze later recalled saying, a line that had the crowd convulsing with laughter.

So why did Sonntag turn up in such an unlikely place? He wasn't there to endorse I-900, he says, adding that he committed to go mostly because the event doubled as a birthday party for KTTH talker Mike Siegel, a friend. Then again, Sonntag, who has long pushed for performance audits, is not exactly repudiating I-900 either. He hopes the legislature passes an audit bill this session--one has passed the house, and is now in the senate--but if it doesn't, he'll root for Eyman's more expansive proposal. "If the only way to get there is a citizens' initiative then that's the route to take," he says.

Hedging his bets may be smart. Governor Christine Gregoire has endorsed the house bill, sponsored by Rep. Mark Miloscia (D-Federal Way), but her budget proposal cuts funding for the auditor's office by 4.2 percent and earmarks no money for such audits.

That's a bit of a surprise, given that "government accountability," emerged as a buzzword du jour in Olympia in no small part because of Gregoire. During her gubernatorial campaign, she cemented her credentials as a fiscally responsible centrist by saying, repeatedly, that she was determined to make government more efficient and productive.

With Eyman waiting in the wings, performance audits are likely to emerge as the acid test of Democrats' commitment to accountability, which makes Gregoire's failure to fund them an ominous sign.

Office of Financial Management Deputy Director Wolfgang Opitz cautions against reading too much into the governor's budget, though. He says state agencies were facing cuts because of the loss of management positions, and the failure to fund audits at this early stage in the budgeting process is not significant given that a bill has not yet reached Gregoire's desk.

Opitz also points out that Gregoire has hired staff to implement a separate Government Management Accountability and Performance system, which would require each government department to implement internal mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of programs.

Others worry that Gregoire was signaling her recalcitrance about ceding power to Sonntag. "She's trying to claim the mantle of accountability on her own," says Jason Mercier, an analyst with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank that advocates performance audits. Mercier also says the Democratic bill, even if it passes and is funded, places too many restrictions on Sonntag.

Clashes between auditor and governor are not new. Locke, a friend and patron of Gregoire, consistently opposed giving Sonntag the power to investigate the performance of agencies. He also slashed the size of the auditor's staff, cutting 17 positions in the last budget.

Given that backdrop, Sonntag says Gregoire has been a breath of fresh air. He recalls counting how many times she mentioned the words "accountability" or "accountable" in her inaugural address. "She used those words eight times, and that's eight more times than I heard them in the previous eight years," he says. Now he's waiting to see whether she lives up to her rhetoric.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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