Proposed budget cut criticized by Michigan auditor general

Auditor General Doug Ringler participated in a joint Oversight Committee hearing on January 20, 2022, to discuss COVID-19 deaths in Michigan nursing homes.

Michigan Auditor General Doug Ringler has expressed concerns about the significant budget cut his department will face in the upcoming fiscal year. The proposed reduction of nearly 30% is expected to have a detrimental impact on the agency’s ability to effectively carry out its oversight function. This is particularly concerning as the department has faced criticism in the past for allegedly deviating from its nonpartisan status.

Ringler recently sent a letter to House and Senate leadership, expressing concern about Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2025. In the letter, Ringler pointed out that the budget included a $100 placeholder in the Office of Auditor General (OAG) budget line item, which previously listed 23 interdepartmental grants (IDGs) and 13 appropriations from special revenue funds.

Ringler stated that there has been a decrease of around $9.3 million from FY24. The Executive Budget recommendation included a General Fund increase of about $1 million, but the overall net decrease of $8.3 million (28%) would severely impact the oversight they provide to the public. This reduction would also lead to conflicts with existing state laws. Ringler expressed surprise at these cuts, as it was their understanding that the Legislative Leadership supported a 5% increase in their budget.

House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.) was photographed at the Mackinac Policy Conference on June 1, 2023.

House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.) reacted by releasing a statement criticizing the proposed budget cut for the OAG. He boldly asserted that this reduction has brought to light issues of “incompetence, inefficiency, and fraud” in the agency’s evaluations of state agencies and programs.

According to Hall, the administration of Gov. Whitmer has consistently received failing grades from this investigative office. He argues that the governor’s proposed budget cut for the auditor general’s office seems to be a deliberate attempt to avoid oversight. With a budget exceeding $80 billion, Hall believes that this cut is a calculated attack on the only remaining nonpartisan oversight body. He urges the Legislature to reject these cuts and fully support the auditor general’s important work, which provides transparency in state government and helps the people of Michigan and their elected representatives understand what is effective and what needs fixing.

According to Hall, OAG audits played a crucial role in uncovering extensive fraud and improper payments by the Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. These audits also revealed unreported deaths in long-term care facilities during Governor Whitmer’s COVID-19 orders.

However, scrutiny has been cast on both of those audits, with concerns raised about their completeness and potential partisan bias.

Director Julia Dale of the UIA expressed her dissatisfaction with the audit findings, stating that it failed to acknowledge the agency’s efforts to address the issues identified and did not provide the necessary context to understand the root causes of these problems.

In June 2021, then-House Oversight Committee Chair Steven Johnson (R-Wayland) requested a report on deaths in long-term care facilities. Johnson had previously expressed his belief that COVID-19 could be reduced through exercise and a healthy diet. The resulting report revealed that from March 2020 to July 2021, there were 8,061 COVID-19 deaths linked to long-term care facilities. The state’s own data indicated a lower number of 5,675 deaths connected to these facilities.

The discrepancy became a talking point for the GOP and has persisted over time. However, Ringler clarifies that it was not a cover-up by the Whitmer administration. Instead, the discrepancy arose because the auditor general’s information, as requested by Johnson, included more deaths than what the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is mandated to report under federal and state regulations.

Criticism of Ringler’s handling of the report was voiced by several Democrats, including Mark Schauer. Schauer, a former Democratic congressman, state lawmaker, and gubernatorial candidate, expressed his concerns in an interview with the Michigan Advance in 2022. He accused the OAG under Ringler of doing the bidding of the Republican leadership and misleading the public.

Ringler vehemently denies the characterization and asserts that the OAG continues to fulfill its statutory oversight role in a nonpartisan manner.

In 2014, Ringler received unanimous approval from the Legislature when he was appointed to his first eight-year term. However, when it came to his reappointment in 2022, 26 Democrats voted against it. Despite the opposition, Ringler’s reappointment was still passed, and his current term is set to expire in 2030. It’s worth noting that his position is not subject to term limits.

State Representative Cam Cavitt (R-Cheboygan) criticized the reduction as an attempt to defund the Auditor General.

Cavitt cautioned that this budget cut proposal should serve as a stark reminder to all other state agencies. The governor’s message is clear: if you anger her, she will utilize your budget as a weapon, leaving you with the choice to either comply or face the consequences of having your phones disconnected due to an inability to cover the expenses.

Whitmer’s office declined to comment on the proposed budget cut and instead directed the Advance to the State Budget Office (SBO).

‘He’s doing their bidding’: Critics say Republicans use auditor general for partisan attacks

According to Lauren L. Leeds, the public information officer of the SBO, the executive budget recommendation for fiscal year 2025 includes a placeholder line-item for the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), which will be determined based on need. A similar placeholder also exists for the legislative retirement system. The goal is to collaborate with the legislature in order to pass a balanced budget that prioritizes the well-being of Michiganders.

When asked for comment, Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) did not respond. However, Amber McCann, spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit), stated that it is still early in the budget process and the development of a fiscal plan for the state is just underway.

McCann confirmed that the speaker has received the letter and will thoroughly review the concerns raised by the Office of Auditor General.

Whitmer’s proposed budget for FY 2025, which was put forward in February, is currently undergoing the standard review process. This process is expected to continue until June, when the Legislature breaks for the summer. As part of the review, separate bills have been introduced by the House and Senate, which will later be reconciled into a final package for voting.

Ringler ended her letter with a heartfelt plea to reinstate the funding.

According to the spokesperson, having strong legislative support enables them to offer valuable insights into the operations of crucial programs, identify areas for improvement, and evaluate compliance with laws. The spokesperson expressed eagerness to engage in discussions with designated personnel in order to address any queries and collaborate towards restoring funding. This, in turn, would allow them to continue providing valuable oversight and partnership in an independent, objective, and transparent manner.

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