Marquart bill helps Becker, Wright pay legal defense bill
ST. PAUL — It is not fair that three counties are funding a fight to allow all 87 Minnesota counties to save money, a Becker County commissioner says.
"It is a bigger issue than just our county," Commissioner Barry Nelson told a state House committee Wednesday, Feb. 15, but so far a lawsuit by State Auditor Rebecca Otto has cost Becker $41,990.56 with only two other counties also funding the battle.
"It is very hard for counties of our size to continue on with litigation with the state," Nelson said. "It is not Minnesotan."
Nelson testified in support of a bill by Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, to provide state money to Becker and Wright counties to fight the Otto suit.
Democrat Otto sued Becker, Wright and Ramsey counties for using private auditors to check their financial records under a Republican-written 2015 law that allows counties to hire private firms instead of using her office. However, Otto sued, saying that under the state Constitution only the state auditor can decide who audits county books.
In September, Otto lost in district court, but she appealed to the state Appeals Court and, regardless of the outcome there, the case could advance to the state Supreme Court.
Nelson said Becker County has reserve funds to cover the court cost so far.
"We have overwhelming support to fight for our rights to have a private audit done," Nelson told lawmakers.
Marquart's bill or other one that also would reimburse Ramsey County for its expenses could become part of a larger bill dealing with state government finances.
Wright and Becker are working together to defend the suit by Otto, who is running for governor in the 2018 election. Each has spent more than $40,000. Ramsey has spent more than $20,000, but officials in that Democrat-heavy county are not coordinating efforts with the other two.
"it is basically these three counties defending a state law ... for all 87 counties," Marquart said. "It is fair to spread it statewide."
Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, who represents part of Becker County, said said much county land is owned by governments, so property taxes used to pay the lawsuit costs are spread among relatively few private landowners.
Otto said she supports the state paying the counties to fight her lawsuit, but strongly argued against a proposal to take the money out of her budget.
The discussion came during a committee meeting headed by Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, that featured repeated heated exchanges between Otto and Republicans.
Otto's office had paid more than $250,000 for the lawsuit so far. She repeatedly told committee members that the money came from "salary savings," such as when an employee leaves a job.
"What didn't get done?" Anderson asked Otto about money her office was appropriated for employees but use don the suit instead.
"They have got everything done," Otto said about her workers.
She added: "We have had to scrimp and save."
The auditor, in office more than a decade, said she is fiscally conservative and has tried to save the office money whenever possible.
Republicans grilled Otto with stinging questions for more than 90 minutes. Democrats on the panel did not come to her aid, other than Rep. Sheldon Johnson of St. Paul saying "we are going in circles" and Rep. Liz Olson of Duluth asking Otto to give some success stories.
Otto, who refused to say how she picked the three counties to sue, said she went to court to defend what she sees as a fundamental part of her job: auditing local government finances. However, Marquart said, more than 3,000 other local governments have an option of hiring outside auditors.
Becker County paid more than $87,000 for the auditor's office to check its books in a recent year, while a private Thief River Falls firm did it for less than $33,000. County officials say private firms do as good a job as Otto's office.
More than 40 counties have hired private audit firms after the 2015 law was signed.