Elaine M. Howle


Robert Durell

Good work is often rewarded with more work. Take California State Auditor Elaine Howle. For 12 years and through three governors and six legislative sessions, Howle has worked tirelessly to root out wasteful spending and failing programs, and to find ways to make government run better. Her wins have resulted in greater responsibilities and an enhanced role in her state. At a time when many departments in California are facing major cuts -- along with many state auditors’ offices around the country -- Howle’s office is growing.

Not a lot of auditors are involved in electoral redistricting. But when election-reform advocates pushed through a 2008 ballot initiative to create an objective, apolitical method of redistricting, they knew they wanted Howle for the job. (The ballot actually referred to Howle’s office by name.) She was charged with recruiting, screening and assembling the group of citizens who would serve on the board tasked with creating new districts.

Howle embraced the historic responsibility, says Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause and architect of the ballot initiative. “They were very diligent and thorough about this whole process,” says Feng of Howle’s office. “It ended up being the thing that increased people’s confidence in the commission.”

Like any good auditor, Howle has come up with plenty of ideas for saving money in a state facing a $16 billion deficit. Her audits have raised questions about the solvency of high-speed rail and state custody of juvenile offenders. This year she was given broader authority in an unusual role for a state auditor, to start looking into the finances of local governments -- an important responsibility in a state where three communities declared bankruptcy this summer alone. The hope is that Howle will be able to spot problems before they grow into full-blown scandals.

Regard for Howle is so high that last fiscal year, the state Legislature increased her $17 million annual budget by about $8 million. The funding will allow her to hire more than 50 new auditors who can proactively investigate high-risk areas, such as the state’s teacher credentialing program. Howle’s office made headlines last year when it produced an audit outlining serious lapses by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which had a backlog of 12,600 unprocessed reports of arrests and prosecutions of state educators. That lengthy list potentially allowed questionable teachers to remain credentialed -- and working with students -- for years. Today, the commission is implementing all of Howle’s recommendations, she says. “The part that’s satisfying and rewarding is that people are taking the issue seriously.”

By Ryan Holeywell

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.