Commentary: State auditor’s office has been on a roll

Elaine M. Howle, CPA - California State Auditor | 



By Dan Walters | CalMatters Columnist | 

State Auditor Elaine Howle has been on a roll lately, repeatedly revealing how state agencies and their programs are falling short — often way short — of performing their declared missions.

The Employment Development Department, the state’s myriad deficient information technology projects and its scattershot and ineffective efforts to end homelessness, build affordable housing and improve the education of poor children have been among recent subjects of scathing reports from Howle’s office.

Howle only delves into issues that the Joint Legislative Audit Committee deems worthy of examination. That committee, like all other enclaves of political power in the Capitol, is controlled by Democrats and the investigations it orders are often directed at state agencies and programs managed by a Democratic governor. Thus, audit results are likely to embarrass that governor and in this era of political polarity, that is a remarkable fact.

However, it’s not a perfect accountability system. When the Department of Motor Vehicles was in total meltdown a few years ago, with long lines for service and nonresponsive communications, the audit committee’s controlling Democrats refused to have Howle investigate. It bowed to then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s promise to shape up the DMV on his own but when Gavin Newsom succeeded him as governor, the department was still a mess.

Last year, when equally immense service blockages became evident at the Employment Development Department as it tried to cope with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the audit committee didn’t balk at having Howle investigate. She revealed a department in complete disarray, handing out billions of dollars in unemployment benefits to fraudsters while delaying payments to legitimate claimants.

Howle’s latest broadside, issued last week, is critical of a political sacred cow — the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) drive to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and thus make California a global leader in fighting climate change. Howle’s report punched holes in CARB’s much-ballyhooed claims of achieving great reductions.

“CARB has not done enough to measure the GHG emissions reductions its individual transportation programs achieve,” Howle wrote in a cover letter to Newsom and legislative leaders. “Specifically, CARB has not collected or evaluated sufficient data to allow it to determine whether or how its incentive programs, which pay consumers in exchange for purchasing low- and zero-emission vehicles, reduce GHG emissions beyond what CARB’s regulations already require.

“For example, CARB has done little to measure the extent to which its incentive programs lead to emissions reductions by causing individuals and businesses to acquire clean vehicles that they otherwise would not. As a result, CARB has overstated the GHG emissions reductions its incentive programs have achieved, although it is unclear by how much.”

Bottom line: “The state will fall short of meeting the 2030 goal” of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels “unless emissions reductions occur at a faster pace.”

As with her other reports, Howle’s dive into the very technical field of GHG emission control is embarrassing to the state’s political leaders, who would rather have the public believe their self-serving claims.

However, it also underscores the value of having someone without a political motive look into issues of governance. Thank goodness we have Howle’s office and the equally important Legislative Analyst’s Office, which monitors the state’s budgetary issues, to light up the darker recesses of California’s massive government.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary




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