As the Nevada Senate impeachment trial of Controller Kathy Augustine got under way last Wednesday, it occurred to me the timing is right for the Legislature to consider abolishing the Controller's Office and turning its duties over to the state treasurer in the interests of downsizing state government and saving taxpayer dollars.
After checking with my usually reliable and very knowledgeable sources (trust me on this one), I'm firmly convinced that this is the right thing to do, no matter how Ms. Augustine's trial turns out. The elected controller has only herself to blame for dragging her name and her constitutional office through the mud, and a combination of the controller's and treasurer's offices makes good sense, both politically and bureaucratically.
Here's how the present system works: In theory, all claims against the state (except for the university's) are reviewed by the Board of Examiners - the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state - before they are approved or denied. As a practical matter, however, the board refers claims to the Pre-Audit Section of the Budget Director's Office for review before final approval (or denial) by the board.
Approved claims then go to the Controller's Office, which issues checks and keeps the state's books. For its part, the Treasurer's Office maintains state bank accounts and keeps track of state bonds that are approved by the Board of Examiners.
So the controller signs the checks and keeps the books while the treasurer maintains state bank accounts. It's readily apparent that these two housekeeping functions could easily be handled within the same office. In order to combine the two elective offices, however, the state constitution would have to be amended, which would require voters to approve a constitutional amendment in two successive elections. Given the current turmoil in the Controller's Office, my cost-effective solution would be to transfer its functions to the Treasurer's Office.
Another option favored by some experts would be to place both the controller's and treasurer's offices within the state's Department of Administration in the interests of consolidation. Independent audits would continue to be performed by the Audit Division of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, thereby maintaining a system of checks and balances within the state's financial bureaucracy. But my preference is to conserve one of the elective offices, which respond to the voters rather than to the executive branch of state government.
The Senate should get a head start on this reorganization process by drafting a proposed constitutional amendment in conjunction with Ms. Augustine's impeachment trial. Once such an amendment is drafted, it could be approved by the full Legislature early in the 2005 session to be placed on the ballot in 2006.
As for the trial itself, I doubt whether senators will buy the controller's "everybody does it" defense. "For her to say she is just doing what all constitutional officers require of their assistants, that is just nonsense," commented Treasurer Brian Krolicki, a fellow Republican. I couldn't agree more.
On Monday, the GOP-controlled Senate rejected on a 20-1 vote her legal challenge to the Assembly's articles of impeachment, which accuse her of ordering several of her employees to work on her reelection campaign during office hours. In September, Ms. Augustine was fined $15,000 by the State Ethics Commission after admitting that she had knowingly violated ethics laws. But instead of doing the honorable thing by resigning, she chose to fight the legislative charges, thereby costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance a special impeachment session of the Legislature. Of course she has every right to defend herself, but this looks like an open-and-shut case to me. Although Ms. Augustine has been suspended from office, she continues to draw her $80,000 salary pending the outcome of the Senate trial.
In his opening statement on Wednesday, special prosecutor Dan Greco, a Washoe County deputy district attorney, charged that Augustine had turned her office into "campaign central" in 2002 by ordering four of her employees to perform hundreds of reelection campaign tasks. But her defense attorneys, John Arrascada of Reno and Dominic Gentile of Las Vegas, countered that she did nothing to warrant her removal from office. "Impeachment and removal from office ... (is) the death penalty for an elected official," Arrascada told senators.
I have little sympathy for Augustine and other public officials who spend taxpayer dollars to feather their own nests - including the "double-dippers" in the state Legislature - and trust that the controller's impeachment will dissuade other officials from playing fast and loose with our tax money. At the same time, I urge the Legislature to begin the process to abolish the Controller's Office and transfer its functions to the state treasurer.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and longtime state and federal government employee, resides in Carson City.