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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL154.PRB - The Power of State Auditors«MDNM»
In his inaugural address for a second term as Missouri state auditor this year, Tom Schweich remarked on the powers of the office.
"Missouri's state auditor has a much more constitutional power than most auditors around the country. We do performance audits. We make sure public officials spending taxpayer money are doing so honestly, in accordance with the Missouri Constitution."
Schweich was talking about the auditor's powers to root out government financial shenanigans and mismanagement.
But as I looked at the photos of past auditors in his office, I thought about political power as well.
After just two years as auditor, Kit Bond moved on to the governor's chair and then to the U.S. Senate.
Appointed to finish Bond's final two years as auditor was John Ashcroft. He lost election for a full term as auditor, but it gave him a platform that launched his political career that culminated as U.S. attorney general.
Another former state auditor who went to the U.S. Senate is Claire McCaskill.
But none of these former auditors saw the role of the state auditor as did the man who defeated Ashcroft -- George Lehr.
He was one of the most promising politicians I've covered.
He had a rare combination of attributes for public officials -- charismatic, incredibility smart, confident and enjoyment in challenge.
But what I found most impressive about Lehr was his willingness to take risks and a drive to accomplish major changes in public policy no matter the risk.
That drive led Lehr to expand the auditor's office beyond anything before or since.
He did not see the office limited to just balancing the accounts, as did the first auditor I covered, Haskell Holman.
Instead, Lehr pushed for major public policy changes in areas like consumer protection and the property tax system.
Subsequent auditors have avoided that type activist role in public policy.
So has Schweich. "We can have an indirect effect on policy, but we don't second guess the policy judgments of the people we audit. We just make sure the office is being run in accordance with the law."
Those comments reflect the views I've heard from most state auditors. But not Lehr.
For example, Lehr wanted to lay the groundwork for abolishing the property tax. He thought the assessment system was unfair and too expensive to fix.
So, he launched an audit that demonstrated the inequities in how values are assessed among homeowners and the prohibitive cost that would be required to fix the problems.
But to Lehr's surprise, the legislature kept the system and adopted the much more expensive property assessment process we have today.
A more costly process was not what Lehr told me he wanted or expected from his audit.
Lehr resigned after just three years in office. He left to spend more time with his son who was dying from muscular dystrophy.
Lehr passed in 1988, before he had time to return to Missouri's political arena.
As for that old-style book-keeper auditor, Haskell Holman, my last conversation with him was the night he had been voted out of office after nearly two decades as auditor.
A friendly long-term government financial accountant, he favored me as a young reporter with the only phone number he would answer while sitting in his statehouse office that November night in 1970.
He knew, I think, that he would be defeated by the youngster, Kit Bond.
"Is it time for me to concede," he asked when I called. When I responded by just giving him the latest voting results, he promptly conceded.
He was, after all, a master of numbers.
That discipline about sticking to the harsh reality of facts and figures that has been the central focus for most of the auditors I've covered.
Sticking to the facts, after all, is what we journalists are supposed to do as well.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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