As far as visions go, that held by the Colorado Energy Office contains little to cause objection. The agency has resolved itself, “To promote sustainable economic development in Colorado through advancing the state’s energy market and industry to create jobs, increase energy security, lower long-term consumer costs and protect our environment” – admirable goals, each and all. In achieving them, though, there is also a requirement of cost accountability, especially when public dollars are at stake.
A recent audit of the energy office, which began under former Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration with focus on energy efficiency, wind and solar power, found that the agency could not properly account for how it spent $252 million in federal and state money. That is disconcerting and needs to be remedied in order to restore trust in the office that is committed to goals that can ultimately benefit the state’s economy and environment, as well as families’ bottom lines.
About $144 million of the money in question came from federal grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – the stimulus bill, for shorthand. That money, how it was spent and to what effect on the nation’s economy have been the subject of scrutiny since the bill passed in 2009, and it is not all that impressive to have one of Colorado’s showcase programs contribute to the skepticism.
The audit, conducted at the energy office’s request by the Colorado Office of the Auditor, was downright scathing. The conclusion: “CEO was unable to demonstrate that $252 million spent over the past six years was spent cost-effectively.” What led the auditors to that point was evidence that the agency failed to keep a comprehensive annual budget and did not have adequate data for most of the programs reviewed, according to a Denver Post story about the audit. That is not to say that the programs did not do some – or even much – good, and the audit says as much. But keeping careful records and establishing clear benchmarks for success and cost-effectiveness is critical to running any government agency well, and it seems clear from the audit that the energy office failed to do so. The public deserves better.
The Colorado Legislature has responded to the audit with appropriate displeasure, voting on Monday to reduce the energy office’s funding by $700,000 in the final quarter of this fiscal year, which will end in June. Doing so sends a strong message to the energy office as well as to taxpayers in Colorado and across the country that mismanagement of public money will not be met with more dollars with which to play fast and loose.
The best role the audit can play is as a first step in uncovering just how the energy office used its funds and to what end, as well as a starting point to cleaning up the accounting procedures the agency uses. Until both of those steps are taken, though, the Legislature is right to keep a tight rein on the funding that flows to the Colorado Energy Office. Too many questions about too much money remain unanswered.