Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand believes the watchdog within his office has woken up from its nap, so to speak. And the dog has been barking over things like the state budget.
“I ran on the idea that we needed to wake up the watchdog and we are doing that,” Sand said on Tuesday at City Square Park, 424 Central Ave. “In Allamakee County, I had a guy who has been a state employee for 24 years say he’s never seen more middle managers and bureaucrats worried about the state Auditor’s office. I think that’s a good thing.”
Sand, a Democrat who took office in 2019, visited Fort Dodge as part of a 99 county tour. He said the state of the state budget has been a source of frustration.
“I think what we have seen is short-term political focused decision making instead of long-term thinking that would be better off for the state of Iowa,” Sand said. “I think a lot of people are seeing, whether through legislation or through budgeting, a lot of frustration with what they see as sort of insiders getting what they want and the rest of the state sort of getting ignored.”
For example, the Decorah native is disappointed that restaurants didn’t receive more state assistance during the pandemic.
“We had a massive budget surplus this year,” Sand said. “In a year where 750 restaurants in the state of Iowa alone went out of business, we could have given loans to those restaurants. We could have done grants. It would have kept them afloat. It also would have protected our tax base for the future. Those businesses pay taxes — their owners pay taxes and their employees pay taxes.
“So by letting them die, that’s a piece of the tax base. Those taxes aren’t going to be paid in five years, 10 years, 15 years from now. But what the leaders who put together the budget get out of it is a short-term talking point to get them through the next election. I don’t think that’s responsible budgeting.”
The mission of Sand’s office is to ensure government officials use taxpayer dollars for the intended purposes to benefit the public.
Sand said sometimes at the state level, decisions are made based on “what they want or what people connected to them want.”
Sand, who is considering a run for governor himself, used an example of how current Gov. Kim Reynolds inappropriately allocated some the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds.
“The best example is the $20 million that Gov. Reynolds put into Workday that was, it’s a company that her former chief of staff ( Jake Ketzner) works for,” Sand said. “It wasn’t at all related to the pandemic but they used CARES Act dollars for it. We then had to work with the feds to say, ‘You can’t do that.’”
In October 2020, Sand announced that his office and the U.S. Treasury inspector general concluded that spending the federal money on a new computer system does not meet the main requirement laid out in the CARES Act, and that spending has to relate to the public health emergency. In December 2020, Reynolds announced the money would be returned to Iowa’s Coronavirus Relief Fund.
Sand did not offer a timeline on when a decision would be made regarding a potential bid for governor. Sand, also a lawyer, previously served as an assistant attorney general in the state Attorney General’s office from 2010 through 2017.
Sand considers one of the biggest successes to come from the state Auditor’s office over the course of the past year was the local PIE (Public Innovations and Efficiencies) program.
The PIE checklist serves to guide Iowans on steps they can take to save money and promote efficiency.
“We had participation from the Webster County Health Department and the cities of Badger, Dayton, Duncombe, Vincent and Gowrie,” Sand said. “What that means is that all of those local leaders from those areas have participated in the program and are making efforts toward improving efficiency with taxpayer dollars.
“We are also looking to collect ideas called PIE recipes. So if anyone locally has come up with a way to save money, we want to hear about it. We will add it to the list we send out every year for people to review. Give them credit for their own idea in there and hopefully put in their contact information so other people who want to put their idea to action don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Sand also visited Clarion, Webster City and Boone on Tuesday. He said regardless of party, most county auditors have grown frustrated with changes in voting laws.
“Local county auditors almost to a T, no matter what their party is, are frustrated with the constant change in voting laws in Iowa where they just keep tinkering with it year after year,” Sand said.
Other Iowans, he said, have expressed frustration with the state budget.
“No state dollars for restaurants, no state dollars for small businesses, but yet we found $20 million for Workday and they continue to find money for whatever it is that their pet projects are,” Sand said. “And yet Iowa’s communities are suffering due to this pandemic and they have done very little about that. Our economy at the end of the day would be in a much better place if they would have been active on it, but they just want to have a headline about budget surplus, which is pretty short-term focused.”
Sand also announced on Tuesday that a report on Medicaid would be released from his office soon.
“We will have a Medicaid report out relatively soon looking at compliance on legal issues and whether or not people who are running the Medicaid program are following the law or not or how often they are following the law,” Sand said.
Every week Sand hosts what he calls “Transparency Tuesday” at 4:45 p.m. on Facebook Live. During that time, he provides general updates from his office.
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