Minnesota auditor is on the ballot this November. But what does the state auditor do, exactly?
The statewide office doesn’t always grab headlines in an election year, and the work of the auditor is often not as political or high-profile as other offices says Julie Blaha, a DFLer who is running for her second term in the office.
ST. PAUL — If you ask Minnesota Auditor Julie Blaha or her Republican challenger, Ryan Wilson, what they spend the most time talking to voters about, they’d probably tell you that it’s explaining exactly what their office does.
The statewide office doesn’t always grab headlines in an election year, and the work of the auditor is often not as political or high-profile as other offices says Blaha, a DFLer who is running for her second term in the office in November.
“You might not get the attention that some of the other offices get but what you do matters so much that it's worth it,” she said.
So what exactly is the auditor?
It’s a constitutional office tasked with monitoring roughly $60 billion dollars in taxes and spending by more than 4,800 local governments across the state of Minnesota, as well as their use of more than $21 billion in federal funds, known as the statewide single audit. The nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor handles agencies and other state programs.
“Our work is primarily local, local funds, local entities. And that's really key,” Blaha said. “And one of the really great things about that though, is, you know, what's great about that local level is it's the level that is arguably the least partisan. It's the most practical, it's one that can't have endless fights.”
In addition to overseeing local public finances, the auditor also sits on several state-level councils, including the Executive Council, Rural Finance Authority and the Minnesota Housing Authority. As a member of the State Board of Investment, the auditor has sway over how the state invests more than $130 billion in state funds.
Some states don’t have an auditor, and on occasion, legislators have proposed eliminating the office altogether. Though in recent years, calls to eliminate the office have slowed.
Why it matters
So, who is running for auditor and why does it matter which party controls the office even though much of the work is seemingly nonpartisan?
Blaha, a former educator and former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO of Minnesota, is defending her seat against Ryan Wilson, founder and former CEO of an auditing firm that focuses on clinical trials. Recent polling has the two candidates neck-and-neck in the race, but there are differences that set them apart.
One issue that has emerged in this year’s race is the auditor’s role on the State Board of Investment. Wilson has criticized Blaha for her support of considering the potential effects of climate change on investment returns, something that other Republicans have started turning into a campaign issue in other states.
He says the issue is best left to the state Legislature to decide, as it did with the decision to divest from Russia when the country invaded Ukraine earlier this year.
“My position has been that our investment managers should invest in whatever investments get the best return on investment,” he said, later adding: “The state board investments shouldn't be handcuffing our investment managers.”
Blaha says she agrees with Wilson — the Legislature should have the final say on making political decisions on investments. But she argues that major financial firms such as J.P. Morgan Chase also make investment decisions that take climate risk into account.
She added that while she suggests the board hedge against the impacts of climate on investments, she has not suggested the state completely divest itself of fossil fuels.
Wilson criticized Blaha following the Feeding Our Future scandal, where a nonprofit tasked with providing meals to needy children allegedly defrauded the federal government of $250 million in funds for food programs. He claimed the auditor failed to identify red flags, though Blaha has shot back that the Minnesota Department of Education had already raised concerns and was involved in litigation with the nonprofit. She also argued the state auditor weighing in on the topic could have jeopardized the ongoing investigation.
The general election is Nov. 8.