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Hoffer, Salmon offer different approaches to auditor post

BRATTLEBORO—While the race for governor between Democrat Peter Shumlin and Republican Brian Dubie has monopolized all the attention, perhaps the most intriguing statewide race is the contest for auditor.

The incumbent, Bellows Falls native Tom Salmon, ran as a Democrat in 2006, was re-elected in 2008 while on active duty with the Naval Reserve in Iraq, and switched to the Republican Party in 2009. He’s received more attention for his personal foibles, such as a drunk driving arrest last year and the alleged use of state resources for his re-election campaign, than he has for the work his office has done over the past four years.

The challenger, Doug Hoffer of Burlington, is running as a Democrat and as a Progressive. He is a public policy analyst who has never held elective office and is little known by Vermonters who aren’t political junkies or policy wonks. He has a reputation for blunt talk and an uncompromising approach to his work.

The two will be in Brattleboro for a candidates forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Brattleboro Community Television on Monday, Oct. 25, from 6-7 p.m., at the First Baptist Church on Main Street. It will be videotaped for subsequent broadcast on BCTV. Jeff Potter, editor of The Commons, will serve as the moderator.

A difference in approach

Hoffer maintains that Salmon “has not done what I hoped he would do, which is ask the tough questions.” He cited the Vermont Economic Growth Initiative (VEGI), the state’s largest business tax incentive program.

“He never addressed what I think are the two central questions about VEGI — whether the program is effective and how much money has the state paid for the jobs that were promised to be created. The Joint Fiscal Office ended up doing the report that asked and answered those questions. That’s supposed to be the auditor’s job.”

Hoffer has been a sharp critic of VEGI and believes that it has cost the state a considerable amount of revenue while delivering limited economic benefits.

“Facts are often inconvenient and challenging, but you cannot make good public policy without them,” said Hoffer. “The debate over Challenges for Change [the state budget recommendations that were adopted this year] demonstrated the need for the kind of information that lawmakers need to make good decisions. The current auditor has not been doing that.”

Salmon said he has focused on transforming the auditor’s office into an operation that not just tracks how the state spends its money, but also the effectiveness of that spending.

“The office is comprised of professionals that are arguably more important than the auditor,” he said. “We’re looking at trying to change our structure so it is more like the Government Accountability Office and focus as much on performance auditing as we do on financial and compliance auditing. We now have an office of structured and scheduled success.”

Salmon cites his office’s contribution to Challenges for Change as one of his proudest accomplishments.

“It is the best vehicle we have for transforming government,” he said. “It is how we moved past the divisive budget process in 2009 and came up with a fiscally responsible approach with greater cooperation between the Legislature and the Governor’s office. We ended up with a depoliticized budget process focused on results.”

Even though Hoffer has not been an elected official, the work he has done as a policy analyst has shaped many issues. The Job Gap Study, a series of reports he prepared for the Vermont Peace & Justice Center over the course of a decade, served as a guide for lawmakers for action on issues such as raising the minimum wage, having the state do more purchasing from local vendors and developing economic policy.

“Recommendations are important and it’s the job of an auditor to turn those recommendations into something concrete,” said Hoffer. “But first, you have to be able to sell the work. I can sell the work, and the reports I have prepared over the years have changed public policy and saved the state money.”

Hoffer has also prepared reports for the auditor’s office between 1997 and 2000, when Democrat Ed Flanagan held the post. Hoffer defeated Flanagan in the Aug. 24 Democratic primary and won the Progressive Party’s endorsement a week later.

Doing the job

Over the past few months, Hoffer has been critical of some of the failings of the auditor’s office, in particular its failure to spot the embezzlement of nearly $500,000 by a state employee with the state Agency of Human Services over the course of five years.

Salmon has blamed a combination of outdated procedures and equipment to track electronic payments, along with a heavy workload in his office, as factors in failing to spot the alleged theft. At the same time, he wants the auditor’s office to do more than just spot problems.

“Changing the structure of a state office isn’t glamorous, but we’ve done a lot of work behind the scenes to improve the functions of our office and be able to give the Legislature and the governor good, solid information on best practices and policy,” Salmon said. “People have to remember that success is a process and that change doesn’t happen quickly.”

Salmon has questioned whether Hoffer, an independent consultant for more than two decades, has the temperament to be state auditor and lead a team of employees.

“I’m not out to make enemies,” said Hoffer, “but some of the work I’ve done has made people mad. I am a real stickler for the facts. False numbers should not be the basis for public policy decisions.”

One example of this was Hoffer’s pointed refuting of state tax data cited in speeches and public statements by Republican gubernatorial nominee Brian Dubie.

Dubie has claimed that Vermont has the highest income and property tax rates in the country. Hoffer called that claim “terribly misleading” and said that Dubie has distorted the progressive nature of taxation in Vermont, where tax rates rise with one’s income level.

Hoffer said that Dubie’s calls for tax cuts for wealthy Vermonters is “just a repeat of the conservative ‘trickle down’ mantra we’ve heard for the last 30 years. The data doesn’t lie. [Trickle-down] hasn’t worked, and it is never going to work.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #72 (Wednesday, October 20, 2010).

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