TOUGH ECONOMIC times have brought renewed attention to the need for efficiency and transparency in state government. A new state auditor can boost public confidence by exposing waste, and by reassuring taxpayers that agencies are spending their budgets wisely.
Both major-party candidates — Democrat Suzanne Bump and Republican Mary Z. Connaughton — stress the necessity of independence, and vow to approach the job with greater vigor than the 24-year incumbent, Joe DeNucci.
Despite some blemishes that emerged during the campaign, both Bump and Connaughton would be improvements over DeNucci, and would find new ways to call attention to flaws in government. Either way, the taxpayers win.
But Connaughton, whose outspokenness as a member of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority board is balanced by her professional background as a certified public accountant for the firm of Ernst & Young, is the more convincing outsider. She has the skills to boost the professional standards of the auditor’s staff and the strong will necessary to intensify the scrutiny of state programs. Her experience at multiple levels of government — from Framingham’s town finance committee to the state lottery, where she served as chief financial officer — gives her an understanding of how public agencies operate.
Connaughton promises to address DeNucci’s failure to make public the details of his audits by putting far more information online. And rather than wait until programs are enacted to assess their cost, she hopes to develop reliable estimates for marquee legislation — a politically fraught task that DeNucci shunned.
Her record is solid, but not unquestioned: DeNucci strongly criticized the lottery in the late 1990s for questionable spending and loose financial controls. The problems in question predated Connaughton’s tenure, but DeNucci’s auditors cast doubt on how aggressively she moved to fix them. For her part, Connaughton argues that two concrete reforms she spearheaded — a more restrictive purchasing system and an automated way of tracking ticket sales — rooted out lax practices and gave the lottery a more accurate view of its finances. Far from running away from her record at the lottery, Connaughton holds it up as evidence of how she identifies and responds to problems in a complex organization.
Her service on the turnpike board is easier to assess. She showed a deep interest in transportation finance, one of the more complex and thankless areas of state policy. An appointee of former Governor Mitt Romney, Connaughton at times was a thorn in the side of Governor Patrick’s appointees. But she wasn’t an ideologue. She was open to revenue increases when circumstances required them, while also resisting toll increases that would further soak commuters from Boston’s western suburbs.
Bump, a former state representative and labor secretary under Governor Patrick, is impressive in her own right. She touts herself as a liberal who feels called to make government work as well as possible, and expresses an even more expansive vision for the auditor’s office. She outlines a role akin to an in-house management consultant for state government, and sees the potential for efficiencies among, say, the agencies that administer state health care funds.
As a legislator, Bump showed a willingness to buck important constituencies in her own party when she tangled with trial lawyers over changing the worker’s compensation system. But she tarnished her reform credentials by accepting the endorsement of DeNucci, and then failing to criticize him for giving across-the-board raises to his staff.
More disappointing were revelations that she had claimed two residential tax breaks, each of which was intended only for primary homes. This may have been an oversight, but Bump’s initial response — to insist that she was due both breaks — hurt her credibility. Also damaging is the revelation that Bump has lagged behind not just Connaughton but candidates for other statewide offices in collecting certain identifying information from campaign donors. A candidate for auditor in particular should abide by the letter and the spirit of the law, and should try to get small details right.
In any case, Connaughton’s résumé makes her a better fit for this post, and an independent check on crucial fiscal matters.