State Auditor Otto’s profile - and ire - rising
By Bill Salisbury and David Montgomery
St. Paul Pioneer Press
State Auditor Rebecca Otto has kept the lowest profile of any current Minnesota statewide elected official. While she’s accessible to reporters, she hasn’t held a news conference in years.
By contrast, most of her recent predecessors used the auditor’s office as a bully pulpit to blast local government officials who wastefully or wrongly spent taxpayer money.
Otto, a Democrat in her third four-year term, said in a recent interview that she thought the aggressive, adversarial approach was counterproductive. It antagonized the local officials they oversaw.
When she took office in 2007, Otto sought to “rebuild relationships” with city, county, township and school officials to “make sure they were being the best stewards of public funds,” she said. That meant working with them quietly behind the scenes.
But in recent months, the public has seen another side of Otto. Last spring and summer, a suddenly feisty auditor repeatedly lambasted Republican lawmakers for pushing through a law that allows counties — the main governmental units her office audits — to outsource financial audits to private firms.
In recent weeks, she has waged a social media war against gun-control opponents, firing off dozens of impassioned tweets calling for tighter restrictions on firearms.
What sparked her new combativeness?
Regarding the cut in her office’s auditing authority, Otto contends GOP lawmakers tried to strip her office of a constitutionally mandated core function.
“The public was going to be robbed. I was very upset, so I made a lot of noise,” she said.
As for what she called a “spirited debate” on gun control, she said, “I work from my heart” when expressing views on her personal Twitter account. That, she contends, has nothing to do with her official state duties.
But Otto seems drawn to the public spotlight. She hinted she might make a bigger splash in the future.
“I’m considering running for governor (in 2018),” she said.
Auditing the auditor
Otto will be back in the news later this week. The Office of Legislative Auditor, which monitors state agencies, is expected to release a report ordered by lawmakers to assess the efficiency of Otto’s office.
The state auditor’s main job is to oversee the roughly $20 billion a year raised and spent by more than 4,000 cities, counties, townships, school districts and other local government entities, as well as hundreds of public pension funds.
For years, Minnesota county officials have been asking lawmakers for authority to hire private accounting firms, instead of the state auditor, to review their finances, contending it would reduce costs.
The state auditor charges counties for its services. Private accounting companies could charge less for financial reviews, but state officials say Otto’s auditors are more familiar with state laws and counties’ financial records and likely to conduct more thorough reviews.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said lawmakers don’t know if private audits would cost less, so he and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, agreed to direct Legislative Auditor James Nobles to study the issue.
“We didn’t agree to take away her (Otto’s) authority,” Bakk said.
House Republicans demanded that change, inserting the “privatization” provision into a state government finance bill on the final night of the regular legislative session in May. During subsequent negotiations, Dayton and DFL senators resisted, but GOP lawmakers prevailed, and it became law.
An outraged Otto harshly and repeatedly criticized Republicans. One evening as the bill’s negotiators were meeting, Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said he greeted Otto in the State Office Building lobby.
“Without missing a beat, the state auditor launches into a very combative tirade against me, saying ‘You Republicans are gutting my office! I can’t believe you’re doing this to my office!’ ” Nash said.
Asked about the confrontation, Otto said, “I’m very direct when it comes to a matter as important as an attempt to gut the core function of a constitutional office.”
The GOP move was “purely political,” Otto said. Republicans “love privatization,” and she believes they were out to get her.
Nonsense, responded GOP Rep. Sarah Anderson, chair of the State Government Finance Committee. A DFL-led Senate passed the bill, and a DFL governor signed it. “You can’t get more bipartisan than that,” she said.
House Republicans inserted the provision because county officials requested it, Anderson said. Under current law, cities, school districts, townships and 26 counties can already hire private auditing firms, and the new law puts the remaining counties “on the same playing field.” She thinks it will save taxpayers money in the long run.
Dayton said he assumed he could get GOP lawmakers to drop it, “but I underestimated the obstinance of the Republicans. It was like a feather in their cap. It was one of the ways they were going to show their base that they shrunk government.”
The battle isn’t over. The new law doesn’t take effect until Aug. 1, and Otto has retained legal counsel to possibly challenge its constitutionality.
After the San Bernardino mass shooting in early December, Otto took to her Twitter account, @Rebecca_Otto.
“Enough already!’ Otto posted. “America, you have been used by the gun industry. Time to push back and say no more of this #gunsanity.”
This wasn’t just a one-off statement. It was among the first of more than 100 tweets about guns Otto posted over the next several days. And even after that initial burst died down, Otto has returned to the subject on several occasions over the past two months.
The tweets drew plenty of pushback from gun rights activists, who called her positions “disgusting” in Twitter replies. Others asked what Otto’s preferred gun policy would look like — and got frustrated when she repeated, over and over again, that “what we are doing is not working” in response, along with a call to lift a ban on gun studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Bryan Strawser is among gun rights activists who have debated Otto on social media. She’s one of several politicians he’s clashed with on Twitter, and he said he didn’t come away impressed.
“She was tweeting repeatedly about the issue with some very strong opinions but wasn’t providing any specifics in terms of solutions,” said Strawser, executive director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus and PAC.
One surprise he had: despite their aggressive debates, Otto hasn’t blocked Strawser from interacting with her on Twitter. The block button is a tool Otto has used more than once — including on some state lawmakers.
“Why are some Twitter trolls surprised when they are blocked?” Otto said on the site. Trolling is a term for people who are deliberately provocative. “You troll, you go.”
An unlikely pol
While Otto, 52, has risen to the top ranks of Minnesota politicians, her career arc was unexpected.
She is a California native who “fell in love with Minnesota” at an early age. Born in San Diego, she grew up in Evanston, Ill.
At age 14, she took a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota, starting a love affair with the region’s lakes, forests and streams that continues today. She enrolled in Macalester College, where she majored in biology, in part to be closer to the BWCA.
After graduating, she stayed in St. Paul and met her husband, author and screen writer Shawn Otto. They started a painting, decorating and historic home renovation business.
She left the business after several years to earn a master’s degree in education at the University of Minnesota and became a seventh-grade life science teacher.
In 1994, the couple purchased a wooded, rolling 30-acre property in Marine on St. Croix and built a renewable energy home. A wind turbine and solar panels provide most of the energy for the super-insulated house, which also has a geothermal heating system.
Otto is passionate about the environment, but she stresses the house has been a good investment that “saved a lot of money” — a subject she’s equally passionate about.
As a child, she spent a lot of time with a grandmother who kept track of every cent she spent in a ledger. “My grandma gave me the grounding of being really careful with money, watching every penny, and conservation and not wasting,” Otto said.
She quit teaching in 1995 to stay home with their son, Jacob, now a student at Hamline University. When he started elementary school in Forest Lake, she joined the school’s Parent Teacher Organization and soon was appointed to a school district finance committee.
Otto got involved in politics by running for the Forest Lake school board while simultaneously leading a campaign to pass a property tax levy referendum for the district. She won, and the levy referendum passed.
In 2002, a DFL legislative leader recruited Otto to run for a House seat. “I said of course not,” she recalled, explaining she thought there was “some dirtiness and ‘ickiness’ in politics.”
But when she told her husband and son her decision, they argued that she could help improve education for all Minnesota children if elected. She ran and lost to veteran Republican Rep. Mark Holsten of Stillwater.
Three months later, after Holsten was appointed deputy commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources, she ran in a special election for his vacant seat and defeated Republican Matt Dean of Dellwood.
In 2004 she lost her bid for re-election to Dean and declared she was “done with politics.” But when former Republican Governor and State Auditor Arne Carlson and two other former state auditors — DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican-turned-Democrat Judi Dutcher — urged her to run for auditor in 2006, she launched a campaign and defeated GOP incumbent Pat Anderson. Otto was re-elected in a 2010 rematch with Anderson and easily won a third term in 2014.
Praise and critics
As auditor, Otto said she has worked with local government officials to improve their financial record-keeping and prevent mistakes. “We’re proactive, not reactive,” she said. “It’s paid great dividends.”
Otto and her staff received high marks in a spot check of local officials by the Pioneer Press. City administrators praised her office for developing software to help small towns keep required financial records and for helping larger cities navigate complex tax increment financing regulations and meet pension obligations without increasing property taxes.
The auditor’s office oversees more than 700 volunteer firefighter pension plans, and the head of the association that represents the plans credits Otto for helping them update antiquated pension laws.
County auditors contacted by the Pioneer Press said they will continue to have the state auditor’s office review their books because they are more thorough and experienced, but they also applauded the new law for giving them the option to hire a private firm.
While Otto wins praise for her work, she also has critics. Although he encouraged her run in 2006, Carlson said, “As an auditor she has been a terrible disappointment.” She has not been an aggressive watchdog, he asserted, faulting her in particular for failing to thoroughly investigate the City of Minneapolis for possibly circumventing laws to finance the new Vikings stadium.
So Carlson isn’t surprised the Legislature took away some of her powers. “But I think it was a very unwise move,” he said. “I personally think it’s unconstitutional.”
Dayton defended Otto, calling her a very capable, hard-working auditor. “County auditors are not shy about expressing their displeasure, so I’d say the lack of any criticism is very positive.”
Regarding her future, Otto said many supporters have urged her to run for governor after Dayton steps down. As auditor, she said, she understands a broad range of state issues.
She plans to evaluate whether she has the “right skill set” to get things done as the state’s chief executive and whether she could win.
“But there’s a long line” of other potential candidates, she noted.
REBECCA OTTO BIO
Office: Minnesota state auditor
Born: July 9, 1963 (age 52)
Residence: Marine on St. Croix
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Macalester College; master’s degree in education from the University of Minnesota
Professional experience: Former business owner and teacher
Political career: Elected to Forest Lake School Board; served in Minnesota House of Representatives 2003-04; state auditor 2007-present.
Meet Rebecca Otto
Here are a few things you may not know about the state auditor:
- She loves to dance, especially 2-second “happy dances” late Friday afternoons in her office.
- She raises horses.
- She’s an avid reader; husband Shawn Otto is her favorite author.
-A former teacher, she enjoys mentoring young people studying government.
- Her parents were both violinists in Chicago orchestras, but she says she didn’t inherit the artist gene.
- She also enjoys cooking, canoeing, cross-country skiing and hiking.-----
(Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this article.)(The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum Communications Company, which includes the Echo Press.)