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ST. PAUL -- Minnesota State Auditor Rebecca Otto's lawsuit against three counties and the state over changes in her duties that lawmakers approved last year is wasteful and is not supported by the state Constitution, a lawmaker said he told her Friday.

"Needless to say, we ended up agreeing to disagree," said Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, like Otto a Democrat.

Otto's suit wants a court to agree with her that the auditor's office has sole responsibility to audit county books.

Marquart said he told Otto that the Constitution does not specify that the auditor's office must check county finances, which she uses as a backbone of her lawsuit. Instead, he said, the Constitution establishes the auditor as a statewide elected official, but leaves it up to the Legislature to decide the auditor's duties.

"To be suing these counties because they are ... doing these things we authorized is out of line," Marquart said.

While his party is split over allowing counties to hire private firms to audit their books, Marquart said he stands by his own rule: "If you can find something in the Yellow Pages, government should not be doing it."

One of the countries Otto sued is Becker, which Marquart represents. Its county administrator said Otto's office charges $84,000 for an annual audit, while the county's latest private audit cost $31,000 in 2012.

"We actually think we get a better audit from a CPA firm, and it’s considerably cost effective for us, a lot cheaper," Becker County Administrator Jack Ingstad said.

He said he has sat through multiple exit audit interviews and has found the ones with private firms to be more informative and helpful than state ones.

"We’re all trying to do what’s best for the taxpayers here," Ingstad said. "The local taxpayer is paying the extra cost of the audit if we go with the state."

Otto calls the auditing of state books "a core function" of her office, even though Marquart pointed out that is not in the Constitution.

"Counties have now challenged the constitutional authority of this office, and I have been forced to defend the Minnesota Constitution and the taxpayers through legal action," Otto said.

The auditor's office has been in charge of checking county finances since before Minnesota became a state, she said.

"Minnesota is the envy of the nation in terms of good government because of strong laws that protect taxpayer dollars by requiring accountability and transparency," she said.

Otto waged a fierce Twitter campaign to stop the bill lawmakers passed last year and told said at the time she could take them to court if they allowed counties to hire private auditors. She says the new law will mean a smaller state auditor staff.

"We are committed to resolving the lawsuit as efficiently as possible and with the least amount of cost to the state and the county defendants." Otto said. "As hesitant as I am to incur any costs associated with this dispute, the risk to the Minnesota Constitution and the taxpayers is too great for me to stand by. I swore to uphold the Constitution and I intend to do so."

Marquart, a deputy House minority leader, is not buying Otto's argument.

He said he told Otto: "Looking from the outside in, it looks like you are protecting a government bureaucracy at the expense of efficiency."

The legislators said that she is especially "out of line" to sue counties that are trying to save taxpayer money.

Becker County officials, he said, have worked hard to keep property taxes down by keeping the budget in check.

Marquart said there may be talk about the issue during the 2016 legislative session, which begins March 8, but he does not expect any change in the private audit law. "I don't see where we should do anything about it."

 

Forum News Service reporter Pippi Mayfield contributed to this story.