News from the Capitol in Helena unfortunately often emphasizes the partisan nature of modern politics. But today, we — a Senate Democrat and a House Republican — want to share something we both strongly support, a bi-partisan success story that has been quietly improving state government for decades. It’s a function that helps state government serve Montanans by making sure state agencies obey laws and accurately balance their books, saves taxpayers money by finding efficiency in state programs, and protects sensitive information held in state computer security systems.
The Legislative Audit Committee is celebrating its 50th Anniversary. Following the committee’s creation in 1967, the delegates at the 1972 Montana Constitution Convention felt the work of the newly formed committee was fundamental to the proper functioning of the state government. So, they put it directly in the Constitution — the only legislative committee given such status. The move essentially mandates the committee’s existence and helps safeguard the independence of the work performed by its non-partisan staff in the Legislative Audit Division. The staff follow strict standards to draw conclusions about the programs they review, and their dedication and professionalism have been central to our 50-year track record of making government work better.
Over time, the range of issues considered by the committee has expanded to meet the growing information needs of legislators. Beyond traditional financial activities, audit work now assesses broader aspects of government accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness. As computer systems gained importance in government operations, a process for auditing these systems was developed.
This work has provided the legislature and public with literally hundreds of reports over the years, containing thousands of recommendations to state agencies. In just the past few years, the office has:
•Found scores of errors in the state’s own annual financial report which, if uncorrected, could have threatened Montana’s credit rating.
•Discovered that the Department of Corrections was illegally housing adult prisoners in youth facilities.
•Exposed problems in the Public Service Commission’s handling of railroad safety.
•Brought to light inconsistencies and a lack of oversight in the ways state agencies approve pay raises for employees.
•Determined the Department of Administration needs to improve its ability to monitor the contract for State Employee Health Centers and validate the costs related to the centers.
•Unearthed a number of shortcomings in the state’s vital Child Protective Services program.
The information generated in audit reports provides valuable information to agency management, public stakeholders, and legislators when assessing the government’s stewardship of public resources and compliance with law. The reports contain real-world solutions and actionable ideas for making state government better.
Legislative audits are a true picture of accountability in action, not just the hollow promises of reports gathering dust on a shelf. Agencies know their financial records will be regularly inspected and management will be held to task if there are problems. Accountability functions like legislative audits don’t just save money through effective oversight, they strengthen the integrity of our public institutions and increase trust in state government. That’s something we all should support.
Even the public has a role to play. The Audit Division manages the state’s toll-free hotline for reporting fraud, waste and abuse. We encourage anyone with concerns about fraud or how state government programs or activities are being managed to call 800-222-4446, email LADHotline@mt.gov, or visit leg.mt.gov/audit. All of us share responsibility for ensuring state resources are being used wisely, especially in the difficult budget times we are currently experiencing.
As our committee begins its second half-century, we are confident that commitment to the vital mission of government accountability in Montana state government is stronger than ever. Additional information about the Audit Committee, copies of previous reports, and information about work in progress can be found at leg.mt.gov/audit or by calling the office at 406-444-3122.
Mary McNally, chair of the Legislative Audit Committee, is a Democratic senator from Billings. Tom Burnett, a Bozeman Republican, is the committee’s vice-chair.