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Springfield, MO

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Opinion: Examining the role of the state auditor through the years

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The election of Republican Scott Fitzpatrick as Missouri state auditor on a campaign to investigate public school curricula reminded me of prior state auditors who expanded the role of the office.

Elected in 1974, Democrat George Lehr was the first auditor I covered who fundamentally expanded the scope of the auditor's role.

Prior auditors saw their responsibility simply to make sure the financial books of agencies were balanced.

The first Missouri state auditor I covered, Haskell Holman in the 1960s, restricted himself to just a financial oversight role.

The limited role for the state auditor was affirmed by a 1974 state Supreme Court decision holding in a case involving access to tax records that "it is not the business of the auditor to judge the performance of the Department of Revenue."

A year later, the court held it was not the "business of the state auditor to judge the performance of a governor."

That court decision cited a state Constitution provision that prohibits any state law imposing on the auditor any which is not "related to the supervising and auditing of the receipt and expenditure of public funds" along with other provisions making it clear the auditor's job is limited to financial accounting.

Of course, almost everything government does involves expending public funds, and thus it’s a legitimate topic for the state auditor.

Despite those decisions, Lehr pursued what amounted to a "performance audit" approach that reviewed whether government agencies and officials effectively performed their duties beyond just balancing the books.

Lehr's audit demonstrated the lack of consistency in assessing property values among counties and even within counties. Because his audit created a foundation for lawsuits by local property owners if the process was not fixed, Missouri's legislature passed an expensive reform of the entire assessment system to better assure conformity in property assessments.

Actually, that was not Lehr's goal.

He told me he thought that the cost to fix the local assessment unfairness his audit identified would be so expensive that legislators would abandon the property tax system and base local taxes on sales or income reported to the state.

It reminded me of my graduate government budgeting course instructor who described the property tax system as an expensive and antiquated process that emerged during the early years of our country when the only way to determine taxable wealth was land and livestock.

Lehr's idea to replace the property tax is still alive.

In 2022 and again for the 2023 legislative session, Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, has introduced legislation to replace the property tax with a sales tax on property sales.

In 2022, the bill went nowhere amid staff fiscal note questions as to how the sales tax on property sales could be implemented and how the revenue would be allocated to local governments.

As for Lehr's legacy, future auditors embraced Lehr's "performance audit" approach, including Tom Schweich, Claire McCaskill and Nicole Galloway.

In his 2010 inaugural address, Schweich proclaimed "Missouri's state auditor has a much more constitutional power than most auditors around the country. We do performance audits."

Subsequent audits by Lehr's successors have involved the security of public school digital records and reports on Sunshine Law violations for open meetings and records.

But I wonder what Lehr and Schweich, both deceased, would think about their office investigating local school teaching.

Phill Brooks has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps. He is director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.

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