By stressing the duties of the office of State Auditor, the candidates for the position are trying to stir up interest as they campaign around the state. The Democratic candidate is Mike Sumrall of Mount Olive, and the Republican is Stacey Pickering of Laurel. The two standard bearers are not far apart geographically, but there’s a huge distance in the way they approach the race.
Sumrall, an accountant with years of experience as an auditor, feels the office should be held by an accountant. Pickering, a state senator with experience in management, says the office needs a CEO as an administrator.
“I would like to see an accountant back in this office,” Sumrall said. “I’ve been on both sides of the fence and want to share my expertise. I know what needs to be done. I really believe it should be held by a CPA just like the attorney general is a lawyer.”
Although he doesn’t currently have the certified public accountant designation, Sumrall says he will pledge to sit for the CPA exam, and that is something his opponent can not do. He holds two other auditing certifications and points out that most states, and even Guam and Puerto Rico, have accountants as state auditors.
Pickering feels the state auditor is one of the most important state offices for every day affairs of the state. “It makes a tremendous impact, especially when it comes to economic development,” he said. “I’ve handled legislation for new industries. The auditor must make sure all deals are accountable, open and transparent. Companies look at those things.”
As a state senator, he saw the need for a steady hand in the auditor’s office as the auditor works in conjunction with the state and counties. That office holder is responsible for making sure bonds, state purchasing and contracts are in order.
“It’s imperative to have the authority and resources to protect our state’s integrity,” Pickering said. “It’s mostly behind the scenes work. I want to be involved on the front end to make sure we don’t have another beef plant.”
Recently retired as Forrest County administrator and chief financial officer, Sumrall stresses his years of service working in the state auditor’s office as a field auditor before taking the Forrest County position. While he feels the duties of the auditor are not interesting to the average person, he says the office is very important because it safeguards public funds.
“The state auditor has responsibility for every dollar of the state’s money,” he said. “Right now, one out of four county audits and one out of 10 school audits are done by the state auditor’s office. No college and university audits are being done by the auditor’s office. All those audits are being done by private firms, and in a lot of cases that costs more.”
Assessing staff situation
Both candidates acknowledge that the office is not fully staffed according to the number of allowable positions. The difficulty of hiring and retaining accountants is cited as the main reason for vacancies. They also say changing that level of staffing will not happen over night.
“There’s definitely room to improve,” Pickering said. “All stakeholders must be at the table. We can improve the system but it can’t be done soon.”
He adds that it’s not just large firms doing state work but also one and two-person firms.
Over the next four years, Sumrall would like the auditor’s office to take back more of the work now being done by private firms. He would also like to do compliance audits in addition to financial audits.
As for his platform, Pickering wants to build on the foundation that’s in the auditor’s office now — make sure public servants at all levels are trained in their duties and state laws and see performance audits on every state agency done every four years on a rotation basis.
“It’s not being done and I think it will save the taxpayers money,” he said. “Texas and Missouri are doing it and finding more effective ways to spend tax money.”
Sumrall, who at one time headed the auditor’s IT audit division, would like to implement more virtual audits statewide. “They can be done before auditors are sent out and speed up audits and make them more precise,” he said. “Virtual audits can be done in about 50% of the time of traditional audits.”
He adds that he isn’t receiving campaign donations from big CPA firms and outside corporations and has no paid staff. “I’m not here to raise money. I just want enough to win the election,” he said. “It’s a grass roots campaign. It’s as grass as it gets.”
Pickering is not concerned about not being an accountant. “In the last decades, we have had non-accountants,” he said. “I have administrative and management experience with Howard Industries, in human resources, and working with federal agencies, local officials and the state Legislature.”
He’s keenly aware of the auditor’s role in protecting public funds from fraud. He’s witnessed it with the federal funds flowing into the state for Katrina rebuilding. As chairman of the Senate Local and Private Committee, he said he’s been involved in the solution and now wants to be involved in the implementation as state auditor.
“When there’s fraud, we must work with the Department of Justice and Homeland Security,” he said. “It’s the state auditor’s job to see that it’s done. Mississippi did such a great job following Katrina and looked good to the rest of the country. We can’t afford to allow a scandal to tarnish us now.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.