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Rebecca Otto: Minnesota nice, not naive

by Eric Ferguson on June 16, 2014 · 10 comments

State Auditor Rebecca OttoI had chance to talk to State Auditor Rebecca Otto after her speech at the DFL state convention. I rather proved my proclaimed volunteer status as a reporter by discovering half the interview was lost, due, I expect, to operator error, meaning I’m guessing I accidentally hit the stop button. In the part I lost, I asked her about the reference in her speech to her predecessor using reports for partisan purposes, which I noted in the live blog. Otto expanded on that, explaining that local governments would come to the auditor’s office for help, but instead of getting help, would be held up for ridicule. The prior auditor, Pat Anderson, whom Otto defeated in 2006 and again in 2010, preferred to use the government’s problems to make herself look like an enemy of government waste. It’s easy to imagine what this did to the trust local governments had in the auditor’s office. Why bring problems forward if you’re going to be attacked for them?

 

So the first challenge Otto had was restoring trust. Given that looking like the enemy of government waste plays well regardless of party, governments might well be as suspicious of an auditor of one party as the other. It took time to get local governments thinking of the state auditor as someone looking to help them get their accounting right rather than looking to jump on them when they made a mistake. That rebuilding of trust is part of why she has won recognition from her peers across the country.

 

Q. Are you getting much pushback on your vote on the sulfide mining?

A. I thin kthe Republicans are trying to make an issue of it, but really, no. Initially, there were some people who made some claims about my vote that were not correct, and that was Republicans, in my opinion, and I’m not pro- or anti- mining. What I’ve been is all about the finances. So that these foreign multi-national corporations that come into our state know that we mean business, and that we’re going to make sure that they have incentive to protect us from any future cleanup costs, or maybe injury to our workers, or anything like that, so that they don’t leave a financial burden behind once they take the non-ferrous minerals and leave.

 

Q. I’ve noticed you using the term “damage deposit”.

A. I’ve been using it so when I talk to people in general, I talk about a “damage deposit” like you would about an apartment. They’ve got a more technical name, “financial assurance”, but people understand what a “damage deposit” is, and it incents you to make sure you get it right, and the mining companies have to put enough down to reclaim the land afterward. And that’s usually more of a known cost. It’s the issue around water treatment that may be required that is the more unknown cost.  And so again, letting any of these foreign multi-national corporations understand that we may be “Minnesota nice”, but we’re not naive, and not to mistake our “nice” for “naivete”. We’re not. And so that we have high standards, and that we expect them, if they’re going to come in, to be good stewards of our natural resources.

Form the costs the mining projects potentially could burden us with, we segued to costs facing local governments, like aging populations and again infrastructure.

 

Q. Just thinking provincially, in Minneapolis our water pipes have been around since something like 1890. Is that mostly Minneapolis, or is that a widespread problem?

A. No, it’s around, in some of our smaller communities. When you’re in Minneapolis, the costs are going to be significant, but you’ve got a bigger population to spread those costs across. When you go out to Greater Minnesota, and the population is too small, the cost is much higher for them and less affordable. You get efficiencies in the city. And they’ve already been working of the last several years trying to figure out, “how do we fund these things, to make sure we have clean water?” It’s going to be a challenge for us.

 

Otto summed up the campaign by saying, “I’m very excited to go out and engage with Minnesotans around the state to help them make sure they understand the importance of this position, and that we don’t want another partisan in the office.”

 

Explaining what the state auditor does is probably a never-ending challenge, given not just how Otto’s predecessor saw the issues local government as stepping stones to, well, so far, political oblivion, but that this year’s challengers seem unclear on what they would do if they got into the office. Her Republican challenger, Randy Gilbert, seems to think overseeing MNSure is the auditor’s job, and he hopes to pin its problems on Otto. No, that’s not the state auditor’s job, and the poor guy still seems stuck in last year regarding MNSure’s problems. Otto is being challenged in the primary by perennial candidate Matt Entenza, trying again after flaming out in 2006 and 2010. He came out of the gate with a negative campaign with specious attacks on votes taken ten years ago in the legislature. She made the mistake of listening to the bad advice of her caucus leader when she was new and the minority leader was, oh hey, Matt Entenza. Now to be fair, I doubt he couched his advice in terms like, “It would be best for you to vote this way, because then I can cherrypick your votes to run against you for an office that doesn’t even work on those issues.”

 

Maybe the best thing that can be said about Otto’s work as Auditor is look at what her opponents have to resort to for attacks. They seem unable to touch the way she’s done the job.

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