In race for Ohio state auditor, Pepper has slight edge on Yost

We saved the toughest till last, Ohio state auditor.

This is the final endorsement we’ll be making in the Nov. 2 election. Of more than a dozen races in which we conducted interviews and made recommendations, this was the closest call.

Ohio state auditor is not the highest profile race on the ballot, but it is important in both political and practical terms.

Historically it has been a stepping stone, providing Ohio with many of its eventual gubernatorial candidates, including some successful ones, such as Vic Donahey back in the ’20s and James A. Rhodes more recently. The current auditor, Mary Taylor, is the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor and her two predecessors, Betty Montgomery and James Petro, also served terms as state attorneys general and had their own gubernatorial ambitions.

On the practical side, the auditor is the most important cog in the wheel that keeps the independent entities in the state — including townships, school boards, municipalities and county governments — on the fiscal straight and narrow.

The office conducts or contracts for periodic audits that hold local officials to state-mandated accounting practices. Its job is to make sure that all funds are accounted for. Also, and increasingly, the office is a vehicle for better government, offering discretionary performance audits that compare the way government functions to the best practices in government and in business.

The candidates

Two well qualified candidates are in the race to succeed Taylor. They are Republican Dave Yost, 53, the prosecutor and former auditor for Delaware County north of Columbus, and Cincinnati-area Democrat Dave Pepper, 39, a Hamilton County commissioner.

Libertarian L. Michael Howard is also running, and points out that he is the only certified public accountant in the race, but until third party candidates are able to garner voter enthusiasm that rises above single digits, their presence is little more than symbolic.

The auditor’s office is a huge operation, with more than 800 employees. Yost points out that his experience in Delaware County shows he knows how to conduct audits and put a fraud case together.

Pepper counters that as a commissioner in the much larger county of Hamilton he has greater experience in cutting spending and finding efficiencies to balance the county budget.

Yost has had the advantage of overseeing offices in a growing suburban county in central Ohio; Pepper has had to cope with the problems facing an urban county in the southwest.

Both talk about the need to fundamentally change the way government does business, but Pepper has the stronger, more proactive record in that regard.

There is another political consideration in this race. The auditor sits on the apportionment board, which draws the boundaries for the General Assembly legislative districts. Conventional wisdom at this point would be that it is going to be dominated by Republicans. Pepper may have to provide the strongest voice on the five-member board in demanding a process that is at least less partisan than how they do things in, say, Texas.

Demanding performance

Both Pepper and Yost are calling for increased use of those optional performance audits, a recognition that government must do more with less. But Yost took it a step further, saying he’d like to see the Legislature enact a statute that would require the governor to respond to any performance audit that is issued. That strikes us as running counter to the traditional separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government.

We were also surprised by Yost’s willingness to use the power of the auditor’s office to attempt to force consolidations at the township and school district levels. His argument that if the state provides partial funding for these local entities, the state has the right to say Ohio can no longer afford a surplus of entities struck us as an interesting view, but heavy handed for a Republican. Isn’t local control a party mantra?

This is a race that pits two qualified candidates, both with law degrees, both with government experience and both fully capable of making a living outside of government. Yet both are running to serve as auditor.

We give the endorsement to Pepper, who inches out Yost in almost every area except years spent in government service. We were more impressed with his enthusiasm for change and his experience in pursing it. And we have to give him extra points for announcing that he would run for auditor even before Taylor was drafted for the GOP gubernatorial ticket. There’s no question this is the job Pepper wants to do starting in 2011.

The Vindicator endorses Pepper for Ohio state auditor.

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