Would you hire someone to audit your company's books who wasn't a CPA? Neither would we. Which is why it should be a constitutional requirement that Utah's state auditor be a certified public accountant.
Unfortunately, that's not the case now. And for the first time in 40 years, the auditor who is elected this November will not be a CPA. That's because neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate for the office holds that professional credential. Nor does the Constitution Party candidate.
As you would expect, none of the candidates says that is a big deal. They all argue that if a candidate is a good manager, it won't matter that he is not a CPA. Nor does it matter, they say, that he would not be able to sign his office's audits, attesting that they meet professional standards. The winner of the office, according to the candidates, can hire the professional expertise the job requires.
OK. A professional credential does not guarantee that someone will be a good manager or that he will be ethical or fair or independent.
But accounting is a profession for a reason. Like the law, medicine, pharmacology, engineering, it requires specialized knowledge. A person may be a good manager and good with numbers, but without professional training and expertise, he or she will be at a disadvantage when it comes to making judgments about whether the proper accounting standards have been applied to a particular situation. He may not even know what is standard practice for a given problem.
Because the auditor is a watchdog who must evaluate financial reports prepared by others and look for potential problems or inconsistencies, professional training matters, especially when billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake.
The person at the top of the office must decide whether an aberration is serious or not. That takes judgment, but it also takes training and experience.
As it happens, only half of the auditors or comptrollers in the 50 states are CPAs, and Utah is one of 26 states that has no educational requirement for its elected auditor. That is not persuasive, however, that professional credentials don't matter.
It is good that Utah elects its auditor rather than having that person appointed. That preserves the independence of the office, which can be tried when someone close to the governor or powerful legislators is the subject of an audit. But to have true independence, the auditor also should have the professional chops to make independent decisions.