Candidates competing in the Democratic Party primaries for Kentucky State Auditor and Treasurer appeared on Monday’s edition of KET’s Kentucky Tonight.
This was the second in a series of discussions with candidates in contested races for statewide constitutional offices this election season.
Auditor candidates Kelsey Hayes Coots, Sheri Donahue, and Chris Tobe discussed their visions for that job. Treasurer candidates Michael Bowman and Josh Mers explained how they would expand the role of the treasurer’s office.
The Candidates for State Auditor
Kelsey Hayes Coots is a native of Owensboro and a graduate of the University of Kentucky. She is an eighth grade teacher in the Jefferson County Public Schools, where she is a team leader and member of her site-based decision making council. Coots is also an organizer for KY 120 United, which supports teachers and state workers.
Sheri Donahue grew up in central Kentucky and received an industrial engineering degree from Purdue University. For 20 years she audited multi-million dollar weapons systems projects and managed classified intelligence contracts for the U.S. Navy. Donahue also worked on intelligence projects for the FBI and cybersecurity issues for Humana.
Chris Tobe has master’s degrees in finance and accounting from Indiana University, and has more than 25 years of experience in those fields. In the late 1990s, Tobe worked in the State Auditor’s office on pension issues. He was a trustee for Kentucky Retirement Systems for four years, and has consulted with other states on their public pension plans.
A fourth Democratic contender, Drew Curtis of Lexington, did not participate in the program.
[Editor’s note: Curtis has announced his withdrawal from the race.]
Current State Auditor Mike Harmon is running unopposed in the Republican primary.
Visions for the Auditor’s Job
Although she does not have a financial or auditing background, Coots says she can lead the highly trained staff of state auditors to execute her vision for the office. She says she will bring accountability and transparency to pensions, public education, health care, and other government functions. As a schoolteacher, Coots says she knows the importance of spending taxpayer dollars as efficiently as possible.
“I’m in this race because in a revenue-strapped state, any dollar that’s not spent or that is wasted to inefficiency is one that doesn’t go to the 125 kids that are in my classroom,” says Coots, “and kids that are just like them across the commonwealth.”
Donahue says people across the political spectrum are losing faith in their government. That’s why she says an auditor must be fearless in going after whoever is responsible for waste, fraud, and abuse in public spending.
“Since I was in my early 20s, I have stood up to billion-dollar defense contractors and the military industrial complex, and I’ve always won,” says Donahue. “So the bureaucrats in Frankfort and [Gov.] Matt Bevin do not scare me.”
While the auditor cannot enforce the law, Donahue says that person should serve as an investigator who can provide the information that law enforcement needs to prosecute corruption and malfeasance.
Tobe contends background and training are crucial to being an effective State Auditor.
“I believe my 25 years of direct finance and accounting experience along with close to three years in this office itself gives me the level of experience and qualifications needed to hit the ground running with this job,” says Tobe.
He says the auditor should shine a light on public corruption and inefficiency, whether that’s in state or local spending, the public pension systems, health care, economic incentives offered to corporations, or high-profile entities like the KFC YUM Center in Louisville.
Priorities for the Job
Given his experience with pension issues – he even wrote a book about the state’s pension crisis – Tobe says he would make the retirement systems a priority. He contends the auditor’s office, even with its limited staffing and budget, should be a tougher watchdog over how the state pension investments are managed.
“You have to prioritize the amount of taxpayer dollars that are at risk for the amount of staff that you have,” says Tobe. “That’s why I’m emphasizing the pensions because that’s the maximum amount of tax-dollar savings that we can get from this office.”
Donahue says she wants to focus on information technology audits to ensure that the state’s electronic voting machines are properly protected from hackers.
“Audits are not [just] counting money, it’s ones and zeros now in these IT systems,” says Donahue. “We can’t wait until an attack happens – at that point it’s too late. We have to put more emphasis on security.”
Donahue says she would also seek grants to bolster the auditor office’s budget, and she wants to make it easier for state employees to report concerns for potential investigation.
Improved communication is also a priority for Coots. She wants to enable taxpayers to easily and safely report waste, fraud, and abuse. She also wants to update the State Auditor’s website to make audit reports easier to locate and presented in a way that laymen can understand.
“My vision has to do with the democratization of the office and audit the auditor’s office,” says Coots. “What that would mean would be to bring all of the merit employees that have worked there for multiple auditors in and say ‘how can we make our audits more accessible to taxpayers?’”
With the sweeping changes to health insurance coverage in recent years, Coots says she would track Kentucky’s health exchange and Medicaid program to ensure proper spending in those areas.
The Candidates for State Treasurer
Michael Bowman was raised in the Valley Station neighborhood of Jefferson County and attended the University of Louisville. For seven years he was a legislative assistant for the Louisville Metro Council. Bowman is now a bank officer and branch manager for US Bank, where he manages a multi-million financial portfolio.
A native of Franklin, Josh Mers attended the University of Kentucky and now owns a small insurance and financial services business. He is a foster parent who is active in several Lexington economic and social justice organizations. Last year Mers ran unsuccessfully for the state House of Representatives.
Current State Treasurer Allison Ball is running unopposed in the Republican primary.
The Job of State Treasurer
In addition to being a custodian of the state’s money, the Treasurer sits on several state boards, including the board of the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System. The Treasurer also manages the state’s unclaimed property program and promotes financial literacy.
Although the Kentucky Constitution calls for a State Treasurer, some lawmakers have proposed abolishing the office and folding those duties into the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet, an executive branch agency.
Bowman says that would give too much power to a governor to appoint the people charged with ensuring tax dollars are properly accounted for and spent.
“We should not have someone who is responsible for managing the state’s accounts that isn’t held accountable directly to the people,” says Bowman. “This allows the people of Kentucky to have a voice on who they should have as their watchdog for their tax dollars.”
Mers agrees that the office should be independent from the governor. He says the Treasurer should be a strong, proactive voice for Kentucky’s taxpayers.
“You can do the statutorily mandated duties with diligence, with effectiveness, with efficiency, but you can do more,” says Mers. “You also be more of an advocate for the people of Kentucky and the economic future of our commonwealth.”
Strengthening the Role of Treasurer
Both Mers and Bowman say they would do more to promote the state’s unclaimed property program and make it easier for people to get money that is rightfully theirs. Bowman says the office should seek out those people, rather than waiting for them to approach the Treasurer’s office. Mers says he would update the program’s website, which he says asks Kentuckians to divulge too much personal information when applying for unclaimed property.
The two Democrats say the Treasurer can also be more aggressive in promoting the STABLE program, a tax-free savings plan for people with disabilities, as well as financial literacy initiatives around the state.
Bowman argues that the Treasurer should also take a more active role in state financial issues by speaking out against budget plans that hurt average Kentuckians and questioning tax incentive packages the state offers to businesses.
“We have a problem in Frankfort where a lot of our elected leaders believe that… they cannot be held accountable,” says Bowman. “We need to really look past making poor investments and understand that we have to make smart decisions going forward, otherwise Kentucky is going to lag behind.”
Mers says he would never advocate for charter schools because he says that would funnel tax dollars to private corporations at the expense of public education. He wants to review all state expenditures and eliminate the incentives that don’t have positive benefits for Kentuckians and replicate those that do.
Mers says he sees the Treasurer as “chief economic ambassador” for the state.
“You can advocate for new sources of revenue,” says Mers. “You can advocate for fair and equitable tax reform that doesn’t balance the budget on the backs of our working families.”
Kentucky Tonight’s election preview programs continue on Monday, April 8 at 8 p.m. with the candidates for Kentucky Secretary of State.