According to conventional wisdom, making government responsive is a conservative issue. All Democrats care about, after all, is making government bigger and more intrusive, not making it leaner and more efficient. So now that Democrats control both houses of the state legislature and the governorship, forget about something like performance audits of state agencies, right?

Au contraire. While you might expect Olympia Dems to concentrate on predictable liberal issues--gay rights, tax increases, transit funding--they are instead coming out of the blocks by stealing a page from the Republican playbook: They're talking about making government accountable. Performance audits appear to be an idea whose time has come. Liberal House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) supports them as a populist reform measure that will build public faith in government; last year, Chopp even signed a pledge promoted by the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation that called on legislators to back the idea.

So did State Auditor Brian Sonntag, a Democrat who has long championed performance audits. Currently Sonntag is barred from conducting performance audits, although the state's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee has conducted 140 such audits since 1990, with a claimed savings of approximately $500 million. And in the last two legislative sessions, a performance-audits bill drawn up by state representative Mark Miloscia (D-Federal Way) has passed the Dem-controlled state house unanimously, only to die in the Republican-controlled state senate. A bill pressed by state representative Jim McIntire (D-NE Seattle), that would create performance audits of the state's tax breaks for various businesses, has been blocked by Republicans as well.

But for all the Democratic efforts, the party still faces a perception problem, and Republicans have no intention of ceding their image as the party of government accountability without a fight. Last week, initiative king Tim Eyman, decrying years of Olympia paralysis, introduced I-900, a performance-audits initiative that he hopes to put before voters in November. And conservative State Senator Pam Roach (R-Auburn), has proposed her own bill, modeled more closely on the principles embodied in the Evergreen Freedom Foundation pledge.

So Dems are moving fast to capture the high ground. Miloscia's bill is back, with a companion bill put forward in the state senate by Jim Kastama of Puyallup. The legislation is likely to be fast-tracked by Dem leaders, and may become the first substantive piece of legislative business to reach Governor Christine Gregoire's desk.

The Dems' approach does differ from that of Republicans. Miloscia's bill creates a "citizen oversight board" that determines the scope of the inquiries while leaving funding for such audits in the hands of the legislature. And it sets up a comprehensive grading system for audits drawn from established and well-respected criteria. "These are world-class best practices," Miloscia says. "We'd be the first state to do that."

But Miloscia's bill brings hoots of derision from conservatives, who would prefer to give the elected state auditor unfettered auditing power. Eyman describes the Democratic bill as "milquetoast" and says his initiative, with dedicated funding, would give the auditor carte blanche to conduct performance audits of both state and local government agencies and would mandate that results be aired in a public hearing. By contrast, the Democratic proposal, he argues, would be open to political manipulation: "It would keep the auditor on a very, very short leash. We can't have Brian Sonntag be a puppet of Olympia."

But Sonntag has reservations about the Eyman initiative, particularly its call to audit local government, which he contends would require a massive staff increase and could take 10 to 12 years to implement. And Miloscia points out he has spent years studying the issue. "Tim has come late to the game," he says. "He's kind of using this to bash us."

While Dems are likely to pass Miloscia's bill, whether they succeed in stealing some of the Republicans' political thunder will depend on Governor Gregoire.

She stressed government accountability in her inaugural address, but Mary Campbell, the governor's special assistant for quality and performance, has some concerns about the costs of the audits and the returns on investment they might provide. "We agree with Senator Kastama and Representative Miloscia that it is imperative for government to be accountable," she says, but she adds that Gregoire has not yet decided whether to support the legislation.

If performance audits don't pass, Eyman--and his Republican allies--could successfully paint the Dems as shills for wasteful government yet again.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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