Candidate Q & A: State Auditor's Race
To what division of government would you subject your first performance audit, and why?
Vince Illuzzi: One of my top priorities will be to take a close look at Vermont’s expenditures on information technology – the computer systems and software programs that power state government. I plan to conduct a performance review to determine whether the state has proper controls in place to design, develop, operate and manage its information technology assets.
Information technology systems are important for two key reasons. First, Vermont taxpayers spend millions each year on IT projects. Second, Vermont’s IT systems are an important interface between residents and their government for everything from renewing a driver’s license to receiving a tax refund. IT systems are also important to fiscal functions and internal controls.
There is a reoccurring question across departments and branches of government: Are these dollars wisely invested and are the assets properly managed? I will work closely with KPMG, which currently has the contract to audit the state’s financial statements, and the top rate professional staff at the state auditor’s office, to create an audit plan.
Vermonters deserve to know if the state’s IT projects are delivering improved performance and better service to its customers. Are taxpayers getting a good return on their investments? Given recent IT problems at the Department of Motor Vehicles and with the Judiciary, it is essential that safeguards, protocols and best practices be put into place to avoid the pitfalls that seem to come up with major IT purchases.
I plan to conduct a high level review of policies and procedures as well as a closer look at projects with cost overruns or poor functionality. As auditor, I will be watching large systems like IT, and significant investments like post-Tropical Storm Irene contracts.
While every tax dollar is important, I want Vermonters to know that – with limited resources – my effort will be to maximize savings and improve performance on big-ticket items.
Doug Hoffer: My first task is to review the operations of the auditor’s office itself. If we become more focused and efficient, it will increase productivity and allow us to do more with taxpayer dollars. For example, I plan to: Evaluate projects in the pipeline and make certain that they are sound investments of the limited resources (if not shut them down); review all contracts with outside vendors and consider the pros and cons of outsourcing in each case; determine the office’s role (if any) in the investigation of overtime abuses at the Department of Public Safety and ensure that the scope of work is well-defined, manageable, and does not duplicate other efforts; re-examine the generous salary adjustments provided to several staff six years ago (“market factor adjustments”) but never reviewed since then as required by law; work with the Human Resources Department to reclassify an unnecessary administrative position (added in 2011) to an auditor position; work with the deputy and the senior staff to reduce the average cost of performance audits.
As that work progresses, there are several projects of interest to me including the Tax Department (compliance and enforcement – are we getting all the taxes due?), Agency of Transportation (review one of the large multi-million dollar contracts), Department of Corrections (contract with Corrections Corporation of America), and audit one of the large service contracts with the state such as Verizon phone services. And of course the state’s record with information technology purchases (IT) argues for a review.
Who had the biggest impact on your political career? What did you learn from them? And how do those lessons show in your work today?
Hoffer: My interest in public policy was sparked by my parents. They encouraged me to read the New York Times at a young age and conversation at dinner was often about public affairs.
They were active Democrats (I recall a poster of Adlai Stevenson in the house) and for a time they were members of Americans for Democratic Action. My mother brought me to demonstrations in support of school integration in the late 1950s and from her I get my compassion for the powerless in our society. My father has an analytical mind and from him I get my methodical approach to problem solving.
I should also mention two other people. During law school, I became aware of the interesting work that was being done in community and economic development in Burlington and throughout Vermont. Once I had been here a while, it became evident that a great deal of credit was due to Phil Hoff and Bernie Sanders. In addition to bricks and mortar, they gave us something invaluable; they expanded the discourse. Through their efforts, we can raise challenging issues previously considered outside the mainstream. And we can imagine different outcomes and new solutions. Without this, there is no progress.
Illuzzi: The late George D. Aiken, Vermont’s revered former governor and U.S. senator, is the person who has had the biggest impact on my political career. His wife, Lola Aiken, who I have known since I was a young boy growing up in Barre, taught me a great deal about George’s strategies to success, which I have employed in my work. Perhaps best known for his advice to end the Vietnam War, Aiken, a Republican, was a proponent of many progressive programs such as the first Food Stamp Program and public works projects for rural America, like building the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Rural Electrification Administration.
He was not afraid to speak out for what was right, even when it ruffled conservative Republican feathers, and he was well known for often being at odds with the Republican Party establishment that then ruled Vermont. Like Aiken, who as speaker of the Vermont House passed the Poor Debtor Law to protect people who could not pay their obligations during the Great Depression, I have always stood up for the homeless, the poor, the consumer and the working Vermonter.
The proof is in the pudding. I am very proud to be running for state auditor with the support of workers, including Vermont teachers, Vermont state employees, Vermont firefighters, Vermont troopers, and the Vermont Teamsters, which represent Vermont’s UPS drivers.
In summary, during my 32 years as a state senator, I have been guided by one of George Aiken’s well known statements: “True conservation provides for wise use by the general public. The American people do not want our resources preserved for the exclusive use of the wealthy. These land and water resources belong to the people, and people of all income levels should have easy access to them.”
This statement is true, not just of natural resources, but of all government assets. I am pleased that Lola Aiken, at 100 years of age, is the honorary chair of my campaign for auditor.
Like George Aiken, I will strive to continue the Vermont tradition of working each day to assure that each tax dollar is spent in a way that benefit working Vermonters.
How will your political ideology – Democrat/Progressive versus Republican – shape the way you conduct the operations and mission of the auditor’s office?
Illuzzi: The auditor’s job is an independent and objective position that is guided by a 200-page professional standards manual, not by party politics or ideology. During my tenure in the Vermont Senate, I have shown that I can be clearly independent, agreeing or disagreeing with Republican and Democratic whenever and to the extent necessary. It has been my great honor to be elected to the Vermont Senate for 32 years. For 12 years, I have been elected as both a Democrat and a Republican. Presently, I am the only elected Democrat running for auditor.
Following Lola Aiken’s advice to me 32 years ago, I strive to transcend party lines and approach issues with common sense to find reasonable solutions. While I have worked constructively with all, I have always been ready to stand up to those in power on behalf of those who I thought were being left out or in some way disenfranchised.
For example, though Gov. Shumlin and I are friends and have worked together almost 20 years, as his administration considered the merger of Vermont’s largest utilities, I fought hard – but constructively – to have the $21 million borrowed from ratepayers repaid. And I successfully worked to ensure public representation on the VELCO Board that controls the state’s only electric transmission grid.
As auditor, I will look out for the best interest of Vermonters and will always take an independent approach toward protecting their tax dollars.
Hoffer: Once elected, the Auditor should be apolitical.
Can the auditor’s office be used as a tool for improving the economy? How?
Hoffer: The auditor can (and should) periodically review the performance of the state’s economic development programs to determine if they are effective and efficient. I have been doing this myself for a number of years (often pro bono). If existing programs are determined to be ineffective and/or inefficient, the auditor can share the information with program managers and policymakers and encourage them to improve a program or scuttle it and try something else. With limited resources, the state must ensure the best return on investment.
Second, to the extent the auditor finds savings or efficiencies in any department or program, it will take pressure off the budget and stretch taxpayer dollars. Doing so reduces the need for additional tax revenues, which means taxpayers will have more money to spend (which means more jobs).
Illuzzi: The auditor’s principle job is to audit the expenditures of state government and improve government performance. As auditor, I will ask whether taxpayer money was spent as directed by the General Assembly, whether those funds were spent effectively and efficiently, and whether Vermonters are better off as a result. The auditor does not set policy or approve legislation. Instead, the auditor audits and evaluates performance.
However, the auditor can help improve the economy in a number of ways. Timely and accurate audits by the auditor’s office contribute to maintaining the state’s excellent bond rating. A state with strong fiscal management fosters business stability.
The auditor reviews Vermont’s economic development programs and makes recommendations to improve their effectiveness. For example, for the past several years, I have chaired the Senate Economic Development Committee, and I relied on reports from the state auditor as the basis for drafting legislation to improve Vermont’s economic development programs.
It is fair to say that the auditor’s reports on business tax credits have made the program more efficient and effective, and assure that the taxpayer is getting a better product.
What professional experiences and personal traits qualify you for this job?
Illuzzi: My 32 years experience in state government working constructively with Democrats and Progressives, together with my independent approach and demonstrated commitment to working Vermonters, qualifies me for this job.
For 24 years, I have served on the Vermont Senate’s three fiscal committees: Appropriations, Finance, and Institutions. I know state finances, Vermont law and how to make government work well for Vermonters.
I have shown that I can both lead and bring people together. For example, this year, after seeing so many Vermonters suffer the loss of their homes during Tropical Storm Irene, I took the lead in crafting legislation to make people whole, especially seniors and those with lower incomes living in mobile home parks. Under my leadership, the General Assembly passed the most comprehensive mobile home park bill in Vermont history.
Public service is more than just a matter of knowing that numbers, though that is an important aspect. Public service is about leadership, management, and bringing people together in a constructive dialogue to find common sense solutions that will help improve the lives of Vermonters.
Hoffer: I have been doing public policy work in Vermont for 24 years, including five years under contract to the state auditor. During my time with the state auditor, I conducted compliance and internal control reviews, as well as performance reviews, which are now a major function of the office. I was the principal author of the first performance review of the state’s major business incentive program (formerly EATI, now VEGI) and identified several problems that continue to haunt the program.
Since I left the auditor in 2000, I authored Phase 9 of the Job Gap Study, which looked at the performance of the state’s economic development programs, and have done annual performance reviews for Burlington Electric Department. In addition, I reviewed the performance of the Financial Services Tax Credit program and my work led to the cancellation of the program, which has saved the state millions.
As for personal traits: I have a talent for identifying and asking tough questions. I am a stubborn investigator who won’t take short cuts. I have a passion for challenging conventional wisdom. I have a long history of evidence-based findings and will always let the facts speak for themselves.