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Is Oregon's secretary of state a three-for-one steal?
Oregon’s Secretary of State Kate Brown likes to talk about saving money. The last time we checked out something she said, she was touting the savings her audit division had dug up.
More recently, she talked about what a steal Oregon’s secretary of state position is, noting that it’s basically three jobs in one.
"Our neighbor to the north, the state of Washington, they elect a lieutenant governor, a secretary of state and a state auditor," Brown said in a May television interview. "I basically do all three of those jobs for less than the price of one of them."
This wasn’t the first time we’d heard Brown say something along these lines, so we thought it was worth checking out.
To be sure, Brown’s position as secretary of state is unique. She’s the only secretary of state in the nation who oversees an audit division -- we got that verified by Leslie Reynolds, the executive director of the National Association of Secretaries of State. (Her source was the 2010 Book of the States, which we also double checked.)
Oregon is also one of five states that don’t have a lieutenant governor -- and one of three in which the secretary of state is next in line in case of a vacancy.
We also did a quick salary check to see if Brown has her numbers right, and it seems she does, according to public documents from both states.
Excluding benefits and such, Brown makes $72,000 a year as Oregon’s secretary of state. Meanwhile, Washington pays its state auditor $116,950 a year, its lieutenant governor $110,831 and its secretary of state $119,222.
Now that all seemed fair, but we wondered whether Brown really picks up all the slack for those two missing positions. That’s a little less clear.
Let’s start with the lieutenant governor position. We called up Brian Dirks, the spokesman for Washington’s Lt. Gov. Brad Owen. Dirks said the office only has two constitutional duties: Filling in for the governor in her absence and serving as president of the state senate.
In Oregon, Brown is responsible for the first, but not the second. Sen. Peter Courtney is the president of Oregon’s Senate -- he has been for nearly a decade. Dirks also noted that Owen sits on 15 to 20 different committees, including the state finance committee, and focuses on both international relations and economic development. Those sorts of things are not part of Brown’s job.
Next up was the state auditor. We made a call to Mindy Chambers, the spokeswoman for Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag, who explained that the state auditor doesn’t actually do much auditing himself. Instead, he "sets the overall tone for the office." He also assigns special projects, speaks publicly on behalf of the auditing office and works on open-government issues.
In Oregon, Brown does oversee the audit division and she’s responsible for selecting its director -- currently Gary Blackmer -- but beyond that she doesn’t have much of a role.
Blackmer seems to us to be the better foil for Washington’s Sonntag. Like Sonntag, he doesn’t actually perform audits, but he does put together a list of proposed audits. Blackmer also keeps track of what’s happening with the given audits moving through the division. His day is filled with meetings, budget discussions, editing duties and several other responsibilities. He also pulls in double what Brown makes a year -- and more than any of the Washington officials.
To be fair, Blackmer runs his list of proposed audits by Brown for her approval. She also says she selected him specifically because he "understood my vision for the office." Specifically, Oregon had a strong fiscal auditing history before Brown was elected, so she made it a point to have Blackmer beef up the performance audit side.
So, when Brown said she’s a threefer, essentially doing in one role what Washington elects three people to do, she’s technically correct. She selects the chief auditor, she is typically seen as the de facto lieutenant governor and, of course, she is Oregon’s secretary of state.
But once you drill down to specific duties, that statement is less accurate. You’ll find that she doesn’t exactly do in Oregon what the lieutenant governor does in Washington, other than potentially filling in for the governor. You’ll also note that the state audit director has a much more hands-on supervisory role than does Brown.
In terms of the finances, the savings are also dubious. If you don’t count what our Senate president makes -- less than $40,000 a year -- Brown and Blackmer come at a cost of $216,000 to the state. Washington pays out $345,000 for its three officials. That’s not exactly a one-for-three deal.
Brown says she uses the threefer pitch mostly as a way to indicate that Oregon has a lean state government. "I think it's fair to say the three for one is not an apples to apples comparison," she said. "I think it's particularly compelling in that it sort of lets Oregonians know what a lean sort of operating machine Oregon state government is when you compare us to other states."
We think her general gist is accurate, Oregon gets by with fewer elected officials. But the statement that she does three jobs for the price of one ignores some critical facts that would give a different impression.
We rate this claim Mostly False.
Interview with Secretary of State Kate Brown, August 16, 2012
Interview with Gary Blackmer, August 15, 2012
Interview with Mindy Chambers, the spokeswoman for Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag, August 15, 2012
Interview with Brian Dirks, the spokesman for Washington Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, August 15, 2012
The Council of State Governments, Book of the States 2010
Washington State, state employee salaries
State of Oregon, state employee salaries
Interview with Leslie Reynolds, the executive director of the National Association of Secretaries of State, August 9, 2012
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Is Oregon's secretary of state a three-for-one steal?
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