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Minnesota auditor’s race in surprising spotlight

ST. PAUL — Few political observers could have guessed that the hot Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary election race would be for state auditor.

State auditor? Yes, Democratic candidates for the office that specializes in checking local government’s books are in the middle of a campaign that is loud and rough, even for the Minnesota party that is used to primaries. Television commercials are being aired before the primary, a rarity in such a race, and the candidates are on the attack.

Incumbent Rebecca Otto and long-time Democratic politician Matt Entenza are fighting in the Aug. 12 primary election for an office that will pay $105,326 annually and generally flies well under Minnesotans’ radar.

It is that obscurity that Entenza said got him into the race.

“I think the auditor’s office has been too quiet and needs to be more active, particularly to help greater Minnesota communities,” Entenza said during a telephone interview from Cloquet.

The one-time state House minority leader from St. Paul said since he began campaigning around the state in June, people say they do not know who the auditor is or what the job is. He said that is proof that Otto is not doing her job.

But Otto, an east Twin Cities resident seeking her third term, said the auditor should not be a big newsmaker. “In this position, you don’t make state policy, you don’t hand out money.”

She said Entenza is talking about doing things that go beyond the auditor’s authority.

The office does not need to be in the spotlight, she said. “If you are messing up, you are making headlines.

Policy, she said, is up to the Legislature and governor. The auditor, she added, audits financial records.

In Minnesota, the legislative auditor keeps track of state programs. The state auditor examines local government books and compiles data about what is found. The auditor also sits on a half-dozen boards, including one that oversees public pensions.

Entenza said that the auditor’s job should include looking ahead to prevent problems, not just looking at past numbers local governments report.

“If you are not looking to the future, the books can become unbalanced very quickly,” he said.

While he pledged to give the Legislature and governor reports about potential fiscal problems, he said that he will not offer specific proposals about how to deal with them.

Otto said that already is what she does. For example, she said, she warned policy makers of potential loss of federal funds over a program designed to allow drivers to avoid being fined if they took driving classes. Her report, she said, provided information to lawmakers, but “they have to decide.”

Another example she offered was her office’s report on sales from municipal liquor stores. She said the figures in her reports can help policymakers, but it is not up to her to decide if cities should sell booze.

Otto said that Entenza would turn the office, with about 110 workers, into a partisan operation.

“Numbers aren’t partisan,” she said.

An example of what Entenza would report to policy makers is school finances. He said there is a growing inequity between rural and Twin Cities schools. “I think the auditor’s office should be putting out reports highlighting the problems some of the rural school districts have.”

The winner of the Aug. 12 Otto-Entenza primary election will face Republican Randy Gilbert and a trio of third-party candidates in the Nov. 4 general election.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.