A statewide race that has been fairly low-key is the pursuit of the state auditor’s job. Republican incumbent Phil Bryant will face Democratic candidate Rod Nixon and Reform Party candidate Carl Zimmerman in the Nov. 2 general election.
The state audit department, which employs almost 200 people, including 50 certified public accountants, is regarded as the definitive authority in the state’s use of public funds. The department’s mission is to protect the public’s trust by independently assessing state and local governmental and other entities to make sure public funds are properly received and are legally, effectively and efficiently spent and are accounted for and reported accurately. The state auditor oversees all financial, compliance, investigative and performance audits assigned to the Office of the State Auditor.
Since taking office, Bryant has recovered and returned $1.5 million of embezzled or misappropriated taxpayer dollars to proper entities. As a former legislator, he lobbied for numerous changes and saw three of four proposals become law this year.
“The Office of the State Auditor’s 1999 legislative agenda received a very positive response from the Mississippi Legislature,” Bryant said earlier this year. “Three of our main proposals were passed by the House and Senate and have been signed into law by Governor Kirk Fordice. These bills include enhancements to the Whistle Blower Act, remedies of the penalties for a violation of the unit system and upgrades in the state’s purchasing laws.”
Major goals of the state auditor’s office are to provide timely financial and legal compliance audits of state agencies, counties, school districts and state-supported colleges and universities, provide performance audits of requesting agencies and entities, provide timely technical assistance to representatives of state and local governments and the general public and investigate state and local governments and government representatives and employees concerning legal compliance violations and accountability issues.
In December 1997, Fordice requested a performance audit on the Reading Program at the State Department of Education, the first such audit requested by a governor of Mississippi. The purpose was to determine if the DOE’s reading instructional program helped achieve the statutory goal of a functionally literate school population. The findings indicated that they were.
Nixon, of Richland, resigned as special assistant attorney general where he focused on protecting 16th section lands, to run for the top auditor’s post.
“For too long, people have used the state auditor’s job as a stepping stone to higher office or as a platform to attack this or that group,” he said. “I’m running because I want to make the job focus on making sure every dollar of the taxpayer’s money is being spent properly and wisely.”
Zimmerman, of Pontotoc, a retired auditor from a major national corporation, said he simply wants to bring “constitutionality back to Mississippi government.”
“Mississippi government is not as required by our constitution,” he said. “I intend to do that. When Ray Mabus took over as state auditor, he began to crucify the county boards of supervisors. The Legislature passed a law to protect their cohorts in government, which took a lot of jobs from the state auditor’s office and gave them to a state fiscal management board. That was legitimately legal, but a little later on, they passed another law which took away all of the auditing jobs and changed the constitutional requirements of the jobs. That, they cannot do. I want to return the auditor’s job to the people. The job is supposed to be for the people, not to the people.”
The state auditor’s office has developed a Web site, www.osa.state.ms.us, that contains a bevy of information, including archival documents and a list of municipalities questions and answers, such as: May a municipality pay the total costs of group hospitalization benefits for employees and their dependents? Yes. Does state law require municipalities to use purchase orders? No. Local policy determines if and how purchase orders are used. Are municipal records, such as board minutes and accounting records open to public inspection and copying? Yes. May a municipality borrow money in anticipation of ad valorem taxes? Yes. Section 21-33-325 authorizes loans up to 50% of ad valorem tax and requires repayment by the following March 15.
“Any statewide official cannot truly affect change without the legislative process,” Bryant said. “The state auditor’s office is no different. The five years that I served as a legislator and our aggressive efforts to seek out inequities or weaknesses in the laws that affect government has truly meant the difference in a truly successful legislative agenda and one which fails. As long as I am state auditor, we will continue to work through the legislative process to make government more accountable. That, after all, is our job.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.