By Richard Eckstrom
Given the financial challenges state government faces, it’s more important than ever that we examine ways to reduce the cost of government… to streamline operations and eliminate wasteful or duplicative spending so that government can provide needed services as affordably as possible.
I recently proposed a reform that will save money. In a letter to an S.C. Senate subcommittee, I recommended consolidating the state’s two financial agencies – the Treasurer’s Office and the Comptroller’s Office – into a single department reporting directly to the Governor’s Office.
Here’s why I proposed what I did.
I’m of the mindset that the Comptroller — which is the state’s accountant — should be an appointed position instead of an elected one. I had a similar mindset about the job of Treasurer when I served in that position in the 1990s.. Because these offices are mostly technical in nature, they ought to be free from political influence. Instead of electing a Comptroller or Treasurer based upon party affiliation or ability to attract votes, these two positions should be appointed based entirely on professional qualifications.
Furthermore, as the state’s accountant, the Comptroller absolutely must be a certified public accountant (CPA). Accurately accounting for and administering state finances is far too important a function to leave to someone lacking the professional credentials of a qualified CPA.
I’ve also been pushing hard for crucial accounting positions throughout government to be filled by CPAs — not just at state agencies, but in school districts and local governments too. Qualified CPAs are indispensable to accurately track and report on financial activities. CPAs receive the specialized training and skills to help catch or prevent fraud and other financial misconduct. This in turn safeguards the public purse and protects funds for where they’re most needed.
(It’s important to note that my proposal was to let voters decide in a statewide referendum – which would be required by law — whether these two positions should be appointed. So these offices could be combined only if it’s the will of the voters.)
Here’s why: Although the Comptroller and Treasurer operate separate offices or agencies (the Comptroller is the state’s accountant and administers the budget; the Treasurer handles banking and borrowing relationships for the state), each office provides financial services for state government. My proposal would organize the state’s finance operations into a finance department similar to how most major corporations organize theirs. By putting these functions under the Governor’s Office, the Governor could maintain any needed checks and balances over the combined finance department, be held accountable for it, and gain important functions needed by any governor to more effectively govern.
I’ve served as both Comptroller and Treasurer, which gives me unique insights into both offices. While the functions performed by both offices are important, it makes little sense to continue operating them separately. Doing so unnecessarily duplicates many of the administrative or “overhead” costs of running two separate agencies.
It’s significant that the Legislature is also considering ways to logically combine other state agencies that offer related services, such as the state’s current mix of agencies that provide health care services or the various agencies that deal with prisoners. This is being done to increase efficiency and coordination throughout state government.
One thing is certain: Now is the time to reform government… to make it leaner, more accountable and more responsive to the needs of the citizens. We all want a brighter future for South Carolina. It certainly stands to reason that, if we’re to truly move our state forward, we must first improve the dated structure of state government so taxpayers are able to keep more of their own, hard-earned money.
Richard Eckstrom, a CPA, has served as South Carolina’s Comptroller General since 2002. From 1994 to 1998, Eckstrom served as State Treasurer. Eckstrom is the first CPA to hold the financial positions of Treasurer or Comptroller General. Prior to being elected Treasurer, he was a practicing CPA with an international accounting firm.