The California state auditor needs to leave politics to the politicians.
In the past year, the California government threatened to withhold funding for the University of California, published scathing audits and used those same reports to justify reduced funding. Then, the state passed a law ensuring its politically charged audits remain sacrosanct.
On Oct. 2, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 562, a bill mandating anyone who obstructs a state audit with the intent to deceive or defraud be fined up to $5,000. The bill was amended in June after State Auditor Elaine Howle revealed in an April audit that administrators from the UC Office of the President intentionally interfered with survey responses used as part of the report.
While this new law is understandable, it supplements the state’s efforts to restrict the UC’s operations in the name of the taxpayer past the point of reason. Critical, and sometimes overblown, audits are typically timed to come out just as state legislators work out the next year’s budget, and because of these, the UC has received less state funding per student than in previous years and lost notable control over its budget – neither of which serve Californians.
If California expects the UC and other state agencies to comply with audit procedures, it must also require its auditor remain unbiased in their reports and leave the politicians to play politics. Howle needs to stick to the facts in her audits, and leave the political recommendations to lawmakers.
It’s not hard to see how politically charged audits have led legislators to unnecessarily bully the UC into bad deals.
An April audit found UCOP failed to disclose nearly $175 million in budget reserves and claimed UC executive employees received excessive salaries and benefits – what some termed a “slush account.” This resulted in the UC being forced to agree on a budget plan in which legislators exercise more control of UCOP’s historically self-managed budget.
What legislators failed to realize, however, was these funds went toward programs such as endowments, research grants, carbon reduction efforts and cybersecurity.
Howle also released an audit in 2016 claiming the UC favored enrollment of nonresident students at the expense of Californians. Because of this, legislators mandated the UC enroll more Californians without much additional state funding – a move that not only strained campuses such as UCLA and UC Berkeley, which were crowded campuses to begin with, but also the UC’s finances.
While Howle’s analysis wasn’t wrong, it was subversive. Her report resulted in lawmakers proposing unreasonable out-of-state enrollment caps – proposals some of those same legislators later changed after realizing nonresident students provided a crucial financial backbone for many of the UC’s academic operations.
This isn’t to say the new law isn’t necessary. State auditors, after all, should be able to carry out their work without fear of institutions or those in power trying to shape reports or obscure their organizations’ actions. But the state has historically used Howle’s audits to bully the University into unfair deals, and institutions like the UC require autonomy to succeed.
State audits need to be more than just political tools.