PHOENIX — Changes are coming to Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposed state government watchdog following criticism about transparency and accountability.
HB 2420, introduced last week, would create an Office of the State Inspector General for Arizona, who would carry a badge and subpoena power with the mandate of rooting out waste and corruption across state government, a promise made during Ducey’s State of the State address. Critics said the legislation as initially written would create a position yielding power with little accountability.
Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Ducey, said floor amendments would be introduced to the bill in an effort to assuage some of those concerns.
During his January speech on the House floor, Ducey said that he wanted to work with the Legislature to create an unbiased inspector general to find savings and “shine a light” on corruption.
“This public advocate would be equipped with a badge and subpoena power to go in, ask the tough questions and be a watchdog for the taxpayers,” he said.
The proposed watchdog is similar in many aspects to other inspector general positions throughout the country, but differences in some respects under the initial proposal prompted criticism.
The initial legislation heard in the Senate Government Committee would have allowed documents related to investigations conducted by the inspector general to be kept secret.
The bill also did not require the position to be approved by any house of the Legislature. The bill summary stated the inspector general would serve “at the pleasure of the Governor and report directly to the Governor.”
Dan Barr, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, said this would have essentially created a “secret police force” for Ducey by having this badge-carrying official answer only to the governor.
Under the coming amendments, Scarpinato said, the inspector general would now need to be approved by the Senate. Also, the results of any investigations would need to be published online within 60 days of their conclusion.
These assurances for changes did not quell all criticism against the creation of the office.
The bill creating the position is part of a strike everything amendment, which allows new legislation to be introduced beyond deadlines by skipping other hearings it would receive. So, the Senate Government Committee meeting on March 18 was the only public hearing the bill will receive.
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said during that sole Senate hearing that he did not like that this major reform is being moved through the Legislature so quickly without a hearing in the House.
“We had time to do it earlier in the year, and we have time to do it next year,” he said.
The vote in the committee fell down party lines with its four Republicans voting in favor and the three Democrats opposed.
Barr added that it’s ironic Republicans want to create more government.
“It seems strange that some of the people who … are drastically cutting spending would then want to create a whole new governmental officer without making the argument about why there’s a need for it,” he said.
Scarpinato said with the announcement during the State of the State address, people have known about the intention to create this new position since January.
“It takes some time to get the policy together and we wanted to research what other states do, what the federal government does with this and craft a policy that works for us,” he said.
Scarpinato added that the feedback received since the committee meeting means the public hearing served its purpose with supporters now offering amendments to change the legislation to address those concerns.
Barr also said he was unaware of any need for this position in the first place, saying many of the duties listed are carried out by the Attorney General’s office. “I question what the whole purpose of this is,” he said.
Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich, the state’s top law enforcement office, came out in opposition to the initial legislation for the same reason, according to Kristen Keogh, a spokeswoman for Brnovich.
“Our thought was we already have an agency to do the work outlined for the inspector general and that’s our agency,” Keogh said.
Scarpinato said the floor amendments would clearly separate the roles of the attorney general and the inspector general. Also, criminal conduct uncovered by the inspector general would be immediately turned over the attorney general for investigation, he said.
Scarpinato also asserted that the inspector general by rooting out waste in state government, would be revenue neutral, which is supported by what the Association of Inspectors General, a national organization which represents inspectors general across the country, argues.
“A majority of inspectors general essentially pay for themselves as a result of their investigations and audits,” said Navi Johal, public relations editor for the Association of Inspectors General.
The details, duties and powers listed in the bill for this state inspector general mostly keep in line with the national standard for inspector general positions, Johal said. Eleven states have similar offices and, in addition to Arizona, Connecticut and Wisconsin are trying to create a statewide inspector general.
Johal added that the language about the inspector general serving at the pleasure of the governor did give cause for concern, since it negates the independence of the office.
Of the 11 statewide inspector generals across the country, only Massachusetts’ does not require approval from the state’s Senate or a legislative body. The inspector general is appointed to a five-year term jointly by the Governor, State Auditor and Attorney General.
Other state agencies in states have inspectors general that serve as watchdogs for that agency. Arizona’s Medicaid agency and Department of Transportation have inspectors general.
Other states have other offices that carry out similar roles to these statewide inspectors general, as well, similar to what the Attorney General’s office argued.
Scarpinato said HB 2420 will likely be heard by the full Senate next week, where the floor amendments are expected to be added. The House will then hear the final version of the bill and decide whether or not it supports the Senate’s language.
The Legislature is trying to finish the year’s session before the Easter weekend, which means action on the bill will need to be taken soon.
Ethan McSweeney is the Bolles Fellow covering the Legislature for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.