Political discourse is full of hype, obfuscation and downright lying — which is why two independent authorities play such vital roles in the state Capitol.

State Auditor Elaine Howle, Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor and their staffs of policy experts provide the Legislature — and, more importantly, the California public — with unvarnished information and analysis about state and local governance.

What they uncover and report is not always appreciated in political circles because it often conflicts with what politicians would prefer to do, or not do, for their own reasons.

But it’s there for the record, and for journalists to use as they explain to the larger public what those in power are doing, or not.

Obviously, Howle, Taylor and their staffs can function only if the Legislature, which employs them, is willing to allow them to do their jobs without interference. Fortunately, Howle, Taylor and their predecessors have fiercely guarded their independence, without which their findings would be deeply discounted.

That brings us to Assembly Bill 562, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed this week. It will make it a misdemeanor crime for anyone to interfere with, obstruct or impede the state auditor’s investigations. Conviction would carry a fine of up to $5,000.

Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, a Torrance Democrat, introduced the bill after Howle complained that she had to discard portions of her audit of finances in the University of California president’s office.

UC officials, she said, had interfered with the probe by requiring local college administrators to run their responses to questions from Howle’s auditors through the president’s office and change them to reflect more favorably upon UC President Janet Napolitano.

Howle, as part of her audit, had sent a confidential survey to the campuses to learn if services provided by the president’s office were necessary.

Howle’s report said the changes in responses were revealed when her staff compared the official responses to the original ones drafted by individual UC campus administrators: “We found that the campus statements that were initially critical of the Office of the President had been removed or significantly revised and that the surveys’ quality ratings had been shifted to be more positive.”

“I’ve never had a situation like that in my 17 years as state auditor,” Howle told legislators at a May hearing on the audit findings, which included $175 million in reserves that had not been disclosed to the UC Board of Regents during budget discussions.

Howle not only confirmed the existence of the secret reserve account but, in her report, said Napolitano’s office had “used misleading budgeting practices, provided its employees with generous salaries and atypical benefits and failed to satisfactorily justify its spending on system-wide initiatives.”

Much of the secret money came from “assessments” on individual campuses to finance system-wide programs. The diversions, Howle said, had been increased even in years when the president’s office had not spent all of the money from prior years. And when pressed, she reported, Napolitano had been unable to say how the money had been spent.

UC’s Board of Regents has hired former state Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno to investigate the allegations of interference, but no results have been released.

Meanwhile, however, AB 562 will make other officials think twice before pulling a stunt like the one at UC. It bolsters the essential independence of the state’s watchdogs.

Email Dan Walters of CALmatters at dan@calmatters.org. CALmatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining California’s policies and politics. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary. The views expressed are his own.

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