SHERIDAN — All three candidates for state auditor have made improving government transparency part of their campaign platforms. The state auditor’s office is currently facing criticism from groups that have requested financial and spending data and been charged high fees and met with a slow response.
The three candidates for the office understand that improving transparency is more complicated than simply making financial records available, though. The financial records include vendor data and oftentimes vendor data includes sensitive information like people’s Social Security numbers or medical information. A vendor can be an individual; for example, a person serving jury duty would be in the system as a vendor because the state pays that person a daily stipend. The technology the auditor’s office uses currently cannot reliably scrub sensitive information and make the relevant information publicly available, which means that process needs to be done by hand.
Cynthia Cloud, the current state auditor, has asked the Legislature to fund new software on several occasions, but the state has not made the investment. In an interview with The Press in April, Cloud estimated it would cost $435,000 to update Wyoming’s record-keeping software. Kristi Racines, the current chief fiscal officer of the state judicial branch, is running as a Republican for the auditor position and is stressing her background as a certified public accountant as one of her qualifications.
“I firmly believe that the auditor’s office should have someone in it with a financial background,” Racines said. While the auditor does not set or cut the state budget, the position is in charge of overseeing business processes like paying bills and paying employees. Racines said having a strong understanding of how those processes should run will allow her to identify and create efficiencies.
“When you understand those processes and can make them as efficient as possible, that’s where we save money,” Racines said.
Racines’ Republican opponent for the position, Rep. Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis, sees the position differently, however. While Racines described the state auditor as Wyoming’s chief accountant, Winters believes it has become more of a leadership and managerial role. Winters said he would draw on his experience and the relationships he has formed working in the Legislature to do the job.
“I’ve become aware of places where we can truly push for efficient, conservative, smart, thoughtful policies,” Winters said.
Jeff Dockter, the Democratic candidate for state auditor, has worked in state government as a program manager for the Department of Family Services and Enterprise Technology Services, where he currently works, and said improving transparency would be his number-one priority as state auditor.
Dockter has proposed a Plan A and a Plan B for addressing transparency in the state auditor’s office. Plan A, Dockter said, is to work with the Legislature and secure the necessary funding to make the state’s financial information available online.
However, he said he is prepared if funding remains an issue.
“The question for me with transparency is, ‘What if the Legislature doesn’t want to fund the transparency initiative?’” Dockter said.
Dockter’s Plan B is to reach out to the computer science department at the University of Wyoming, as well as community colleges throughout the state, and make creating a transparent auditor’s site an open-source development project.
“Wyoming college students would get real hands-on development time and coding experience to create the transparency site,” Dockter said.
Dockter also said he would undertake initiatives that would look to utilize technology and automation to streamline processes.
Racines said improving transparency would require the auditor to clearly explain why transparency needs to be a priority and work closely with the Legislature and the state’s next governor to find a solution. Winters returned to his experience as a legislator and said he is prepared to explain why improving transparency needs to be a priority.
“The way I see that happening is the ability to go in and explain to the Legislature and explain what is necessary,” Winters said. “The people in the Legislature have come to know me as someone they can trust, and I can go and really explain why this needs to get done.”
Racines added that transparency goes beyond finding a software solution that makes the state’s financial data available; it also needs to be made legible to the average citizen.
“If the state auditor dumps a spreadsheet with three-million lines of data in it, that’s not useful to 99 percent of the population, even if it is complying with the letter of the law,” Racines said.
Racines and Winters will compete in the Republican primary Aug. 21. The winner will face Dockter in the general election Nov. 6.