WHAT OTHERS SAY: Challenged by judges, state auditor punts on responsibility

Thursday, April 26, 2012 | 2:09 p.m. CDT

Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich is taking his ball and going home.

Last week, after a Cole County Circuit Court judge overturned a fiscal note that the auditor had prepared for a proposed voter-initiative petition, Schweich sent his staff a memo. It was the third time this year that a fiscal note prepared by the auditor's office was rejected by a judge.

Schweich's missive, after taking issue with all three judges who dared to criticize his work, instructed his staff to stop preparing fiscal notes. These financial estimates are offered to voters to explain how much money ballot proposals might cost or how much new revenue they might generate.

If Schweich's decision stands, the only advice that his office would offer voters about the financial impact of ballot measures would be this: "It is impossible to state the fiscal impact."

This is a gross overreaction to what Schweich properly identifies as a vexing problem.

We previously noted that the state's initiative petition process has grown unwieldy, with 143 petitions approved for circulation this election cycle. Few of them are likely to make the November ballot. Flawed or not, each petition causes extra work for Schweich's office and that of Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

The blame lies first with the legislature, which is so dysfunctional that voters have to take matters into their own hands. Lawyers representing special interests then turn to the court system to argue various petitions.

This is not a recipe for good government, although judges in each of the initiative petition cases found legitimate problems in the financial analysis by Schweich's office. If he has issues with their rulings, he should appeal, not just punt.

Schweich is correct when he says that he's getting different advice from the various judges who issued rulings on tobacco tax, fair tax and payday loan ballot proposals. One judge, Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem, determined that the law requiring the state auditor to prepare fiscal notes is unconstitutional.

If that ruling were to be upheld — Schweich has appealed it — then his office would be out of the fiscal note business. But Schweich didn't decide to stop writing fiscal notes until Circuit Court Judge Patricia Joyce harshly criticized him for producing a biased fiscal note on mega-millionaire Rex Sinquefield's proposal to abolish the state income tax.

Schweich has struggled with the issue before. In February 2011, when Sinquefield first submitted his so-called "fair tax" proposal to the state, Mr. Schweich's fiscal note claimed that it would be impossible to determine its impact because it would involve predicting what the legislature might do in response. In effect, Judge Joyce chided Schweich for not following his previous advice.

All of this makes it difficult for Schweich to do his job. But it's not impossible, as he claims.

Unless Schweich wants to follow the example of his fellow Republicans in the Missouri House, who passed a bill last week suggesting that Missouri should be able to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court, the proper course is to do what the law requires.

Voters depend on a fair analysis by the auditor's office, which also must pass constitutional scrutiny by the judiciary. The judges said that Schweich didn't do his job. His reaction should be to do it better, not to hide from the challenge.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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