BURLINGTON — In the Democratic primary race for state auditor against Sen. Ed Flanagan, private entrepreneur Doug Hoffer, 59, poses one question for Democratic voters: “Which of us is better able to beat (incumbent and Republican) Tom Salmon?”
That single question has made Democrats, Progressives and Independents around the state take notice of his candidacy and his credentials.
Running for elective office is new to Hoffer, though the political process is not. A self-employed policy analyst for the past 17 years, Hoffer spent several years working with Flanagan when he was state auditor between 1995-2000 and has worked on other state-related audits in more recent years. He has a B.A. from Williams College and a J.D. from SUNY Buffalo Law School. He came to Vermont in 1988 to work for the city of Burlington in the Community and Economic Development Office and left city hall in 1993.
He served on the Burlington Electric Commission six years — five as chairman — beginning in 1994.
According to his website, Hoffer is the author of a number of studies including the “Vermont Job Gap Study,” which is a series of 10 reports begun in 1997. The Job Gap Study introduced the concept of livable wages and helped persuade the Legislature to increase the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Later reports include “The Leaky Bucket” in 2000 that quantified Vermont’s dependence on imported goods and services and argued for targeted import substitution, as well as a critique of the state’s economic development policy in 2006 that led to adoption of the Unified Economic Development Budget. He has authored other reports dealing with renewable energy, child care, state pension investments, food co-ops, as well as other topics.
Some of his clients have included the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, Vermont State Treasurer, Vermont Legislature, Peace and Justice Center, Yellowwood Associates/Ford Foundation, Public Assets Institute, Vermont State Employees Association, Renewable Energy Vermont, Burlington Electric and Public Works Departments, Windham Child Care Association, Connecticut Valley Co-ops, City Market and Good Jobs First.
While Hoffer says he has no intention to seek higher office in future years, he does have a clear idea of what the state auditor is and that office should spend most of its time doing: performance reviews.
“The job is much more than traditional auditing of accounts,” Hoffer said in a recent interview. “All auditors should be doing performance reviews … That is, they need to ask the detail questions: How much did we spend? For what? What did we get from it and was it a good value?
“When the Legislature passes a bill, it has a specific intent; something it hoped to accomplish. So how well did the bill work?”
The state auditor should look into those types of things that are important to legislators, the administration and the state bureaucracy to help each group understand the specifics of legislation and programs, and do that through performance reviews, Hoffer said.
“Managers need it, legislators need it for policy, and taxpayers need to know that their tax money is being spent wisely,” he said.
Asked what areas of state finance he would choose to pursue, he said the highest use of the office is to “go where the money is.”
Education, health care, transportation and state infrastructure, and the state corrections system are a few high-spending areas that need careful and continual analysis in order to produce good legislation. Economic development is another area of needed analysis, Hoffer states, if only because the issue has been politicized and has been at the center of recent political campaigns from Gov. James Douglas to the current gubernatorial candidates.
For programs like the Vermont Economic Progress Council tax incentives for new businesses that locate in the state, Hoffer said, the question has to be: Is the program worthwhile? What did we get for $60 million spent to attract jobs? Did state incentives to attract jobs actually attract jobs that would not have occurred anyway, and how long will they stay?
Hoffer notes that raising such questions does not make him anti-business, but it does ensure that state taxpayers are getting their money’s worth out of their government.
On other issues, like health care, Hoffer said the state auditor’s role is not to wade into the politics of a specific policy without invitation from the Legislature or administration, but he says he’s willing to ask tough questions and help others find the best solution. He notes that health care spending has gone up $2 billion since Gov. Douglas was elected eight years ago and asks if the state ratepayers are “captive to a 6 to 10 percent increase every year?”
On job growth and economic development, he is critical of the Douglas administration’s penchant for relying on “anecdotes and ideology” to base policy decisions rather than facts and raw data. The mantra that high taxes are chasing jobs out of state, he said, is just that: an ideological statement to sway opinion, even if there is no data to back it up. Good information, he said, based on a good audit will almost always lead to improved legislation or a more thoughtful and fact-based policy.
As a Democratic candidate seeking the office, Hoffer is a determined and somewhat feisty competitor who says he’ll give incumbent Tom Salmon a tough race.
Besides Salmon’s penchant for saying things publicly that have landed him in political hot waters, Hoffer is most critical of the Republican’s apparent preferential treatment of Vermont Yankee under Entergy during recent audits.
“If you’re the auditor, you shouldn’t be lobbied,” he said flatly, adding that it is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. And while he said that what Salmon was doing to help towns and cities solve smaller issues, that isn’t where the big dollars can be saved.
“I’m talking about the productivity of the office,” he said, adding that there are many important programs in the state that could benefit from a professional performance audit, resulting in millions of dollars of savings in these tight budgetary times.
And that’s a daily battle, Hoffer says, that he would like the opportunity to pursue.