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Making a second run

Candidate Hoffer said he would call State Auditor office his only home

BRATTLEBORO—Don’t let his genteel speaking voice fool you. Doug Hoffer has won himself a reputation for being a “straight shooter.”

The auditor needs the respect of those he audits, said Hoffer of his directness.

“My work is not b.s. It’s the real deal,” he said.

Hoffer, a Democrat, describes himself as a numbers guy who can identify issues and is prepared to ask hard questions.

A commitment to “evidence-based findings” reaches into his DNA, he said.

Departments don’t always want to receive feedback on their spending decisions, said Hoffer. But beware, status quo, Hoffer said he has a passion for challenging conventional wisdom.

Hoffer said he’s running for State Auditor because he wants to use his skills to provide a public service to Vermonters. As a Burlington-based freelance policy analyst for 19 years, Hoffer said most of his work has been in the public interest.

“If I get this job, I can make an even better contribution,” he said.

Hoffer is running against state Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, who is attempting the leap to auditor after 35 years in the state senate.

If elected, Hoffer has pledged that State Auditor will be his full-time job. He has criticized Illuzzi for saying, even if elected, he would continue as a State’s Attorney for a few years.

Illuzzi “is not a numbers guy,” said Hoffer of his opponent. Instead, he views Illuzzi as a career politician.

Illuzzi is the better campaigner, acknowledges Hoffer, but he is more focused on the job.

“This is the weirdest job interview I’ve ever had,” said Hoffer.

Second try

Hoffer worked in the in State Auditor’s office for five years in the 1990s under former Auditor Ed Flannigan.

He won the Democratic nomination over Flannigan in the 2010 primary, but lost to Tom Salmon in the election. Salmon has decided to not run for another term in 2012.

Hoffer helped author and was the research director for the nonprofit Peace and Justice Center’s Vermont Jobs Gap Study. The study examined aspects of the state’s economy and whether it produced enough livable wage jobs.

According to information on Hoffer’s campaign website, through his work on the Jobs Gap Study, he has “provided policy guidance for Legislators dealing with economic development and related tax policies, the livable wage, and the benefits of greater in-state purchasing.”

Hoffer has worked for 24 years as a policy analyst. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and a juris doctor from SUNY Buffalo Law School. He moved to Vermont in 1988 to work for the City of Burlington.

The auditor’s office has no authority to enforce its recommendations, said Hoffer. That’s why the office’s findings must be sound and why the auditor must forge solid relationships.

These measures help foster respect for the auditor’s recommendations, he said.

“The data has to speak for itself,” he said.

Hoffer said he will ask if tax-funded programs are effective. There’s a lot of “perceived wisdom” in policy, he said, and when new ideas and data are presented, opponents want to go after your work.

“It’s gotta be right,” he said about why he’s a stickler for data.

Last election cycle, Hoffer received attention for challenging Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie’s statement on Vermont’s tax burden. The lieutenant governor had claimed that Vermont’s income tax rate was higher than its neighbors, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

Despite not standing as Dubie’s direct election opponent, Hoffer responded with a press statement and numbers from the Joint Fiscal Office.

Too often with economic development issues, Hoffer said assertions like Dubie’s, where “assumptions and anecdotes pass for evidence,” go unchallenged.

Policy-makers didn’t want to be seen as anti-business and so didn’t challenge Dubie, he said of the 2010 incident.

Of course people move to Florida, said Hoffer. “It’s sunny. They’re old.”

But, data has shown that for three decades, Vermont has attracted mid-career people, he said.

Hoffer also challenges the oft-repeated statements of economist Art Woolf that young people are fleeing the state.

While there are jobs outside Vermont that pay a lot more money, Hoffer said, “If you pay them, they will stay.”

Making changes

Observing the current auditor’s office, Hoffer said he sees things he’d like to change.

Under the heading of “Goals,” Hoffer has listed on his website “greater transparency,” “more accountability,” and “better use of resources.”

He said he’s not sure that the auditor’s office maximizes its resources. Projects have taken longer than necessary, in his opinion, because of “scope creep.” Instead, Hoffer thinks that “scope is scope” and that if the auditor’s office stuck to an audit’s goal it could complete more projects with the same money.

Hoffer also said he wants to increase the office’s level of transparency. Salmon had promised to post the office’s budget, but has not, said Hoffer.

Hoffer would also like to see the budget include outside contracts. Also, every review and audit should list the cost of the audit.

As auditor, Hoffer said he would require the office to engage in more planning. If the office can do a quick “test sample,” before taking on an audit not required by law, then the office can predetermine if the audit is worth the expenditure of limited resources.

Hoffer has pledged to post audit summaries online, in “plain English,” and said he hopes to delve into personal service contracts the state has with outside contractors. Some of these contracts have taken on “a life of their own.”

It’s possible to review the work of a state employee, he said, but contract work by non-state employees is harder to review. Still, the auditor can ask if outsourcing saved the state money, or simply sent state money elsewhere.

Hoffer also said he believes at least one of the many transportation contracts, some of the state’s biggest, should receive an audit a year.

Another question Hoffer wants to ask is of the state Tax Department. The department, as he understands it, has received money to hire investigators tasked with finding sheltered money.

“Here we are looking under rocks for money,” he said. “I think it’s prudent to ask if we’re collecting everything we’re due.”

Hoffer has questioned Illuzzi about his response to recent revelations of timesheet fraud by Vermont State Police Trooper James Deeghan. Illuzzi has said that, as auditor, he would establish a system of better oversight.

According to Hoffer, some of Illuzzi’s suggestions already exist in the state’s Human Resources Policy Manual. For his part, Hoffer said he would get to know the lay of the land before taking action.

Hoffer said the two approaches represent how the two candidates would operate within the office.

Illuzzi’s response, said Hoffer, represents the approach of a career politician who wants to look active for the voters. Hoffer said, however, that he would want to investigate a department’s internal auditing capacity before deciding a course of action to remedy the situation.

The state has lost a lot of jobs recently, he said, adding the auditor should only react after careful analysis.

Hoffer said he received 105,000 votes in his first run for auditor in 2010, which was what he called a big achievement for a first-timer without much name recognition running against an incumbent.

“This is it,” said Hoffer about his political aspirations, adding he does not see State Auditor as a stepping-stone to a higher office.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #173 (Wednesday, October 10, 2012).

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