The constitutional officer responsible for policing government finances and checking departments for effectiveness says he expects the new gubernatorial administration will be more transparent than the outgoing one.
But Comptroller Justin Wilson, a Republican who is expected to win reelection by the Legislature on Wednesday and continue running the state auditing office for the next two years, declined to shed any additional light on what kind of new openness Tennesseans should expect out of state government.
The comptroller’s primary responsibilities include auditing state and local governments and helping manage the state’s finances, a job Wilson once said makes him the state’s top “money cop.” His office also examines government’s execution of policy initiatives — for example, the federal weatherization program, the effectiveness of state-funded Pre-K and the accuracy of the state’s budget books.
Wilson, who has served two years as comptroller, recently hired a noteworthy new addition to his office. Former House Republican Caucus Leader Jason Mumpower, a powerful member of the GOP who stepped down from the Legislature last year, is now Wilson’s executive assistant.
But will the direction and focus of the office shift now that it — and Tennessee government in general – has a stronger Republican face to it? What kinds of changes should taxpayers expect in the way of transparency in state government? And how does he continue to ensure integrity in his office? TNReport recently sat down with Wilson and asked him a few questions.
TNReport: You’ve been working with Gov. Bredesen for a while. What’s your take on his tenure and legacy?
Wilson: I think first of all, it’s fair to say that Tennessee has a full, operating government. Our doors are open, we are functioning fully as a state government in providing essential services. And I believe the governor is a large part of that happening. He gets credit for that, because we could easily get off track.
TNR: What faith do you have that the next governor can keep the state on track?
Wilson: You don’t know what the future holds, but every evidence we’ve seen so far is that Bill Haslam will be an excellent governor. He’s got the experience and credentials to do a splendid job and I believe that he will.
TNR: When it comes to your office specifically, what things are important to you?
Wilson: The overriding issue that we have is the integrity of state government. That is the principal issue and the one that we are most concerned about. We are also concerned that we maintain a full financially responsible government. And every evidence is that Mr. Haslam meets those qualifications.
TNR: Your job is to be the impartial auditor?
Wilson: We attempt to look at the data and to give an impartial analysis, yes.
TNR: So, to what extent is it fair to be calling in question your audits?
Wilson: I think that is entirely appropriate to question our work. I have no problem with that at all. In fact, I encourage that. You can draw different conclusions from the data we gave. It’s very interesting, many proponents of pre-K say that our reports supports their position, and many opponents also say that it supports their position. That’s not our job. Our job is not to be involved in political aspects of it but to give impartial, objective analysis and I believe we’ve done so.
TNR: What was the philosophy behind Jason Mumpower’s hire?
Wilson: I’m very pleased with this. He is a very talented man, he really is, and his background, if you look at the General Assembly, is exactly what this office needs – budget, financial responsibility, ethics, integrity. This is what he did in the General Assembly, and I’m happy to have him here. He’ll also help us very much with the General Assembly, and we’re involved with a lot of legislation, and we’ll review most of the legislation for the General Assembly.
TNR: So, is he kind of the liaison between you guys and the General Assembly?
Wilson: That is one of his duties, yes.
TNR: What are some of his other duties?
Wilson: He is an administrative officer who will deal with the entire administration of this office. To say we have a lot of things going on is an understatement. And I think it’s very appropriate to have an executive assistant, and that’s exactly what he is.
TNR: Are you at all concerned with the fact that he has had such a close allegiance to Republicans?
Wilson: We’re not going to operate this office that way. That’s not what we are.
TNR: I think the reason why it was of interest to me is that he was a very prominent Republican.
Wilson: Well, so am I.
TNR: In the last couple of months, there’s been a lot attention around Gov. Bredesen, Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr and Matt Kisber. Gov. Bredesen said at one point you guys were looking into Reagan Farr. What are you guys looking into at this point?
Wilson: Oh, I can’t get into what we may be doing and not doing. I can’t do that.
TNR: Gov. Bredesen had mentioned that you guys were looking into it.
Wilson: I know that he has, and I can’t get into it.
TNR: The lack of public information that’s available for determining how Economic and Community Development has been able to determine which groups can get some sort of business tax breaks…is that something that you guys can even audit because it’s not quite public information?
Wilson: Yes, we can. I think that it’s fair to say that I have a bias towards disclosure. We can review it. We may not be able to make what we find available to the public and you know, if we see anything wrong, we will take whatever steps are appropriate.
TNR: Do you expect any of that to change under a new administration? A new Legislature?
Wilson: I don’t know what the new administration will do about this. My belief, and this is based on my meetings with Governor-elect Haslam, is that he is absolutely determined to have complete integrity in government.
TNR: What does that mean to have full integrity in government? Does that mean more disclosure?
Wilson: I think Governor-elect Haslam has to answer that question.
Editor’s note: TNReport’s interview has been edited for brevity.