The Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s new inspector general will help the department tighten its belt by rooting out waste, fraud and abuse, according to the administration of Gov. Scott Walker, who recently created the post.

But the new watchdog will report to the chief of the agency for which he or she will provide oversight, raising questions about whether the inspector could face a conflict of interest or be limited in the scope of investigations.

“You have a little bit of a fox guarding the hen house situation here,” said Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin.

Legislative Democrats such as Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz question if the mission of the new office — to scour for waste — duplicates that of the nonpartisan agency that already does so: the Legislative Audit Bureau.

Transportation Secretary Dave Ross, meanwhile, hailed the move in a recent statement, saying the agency “has great potential to accomplish more within our current budget.”

Following a state budget debate dominated by disagreement over state transportation spending, Walker — in his message explaining provisions he vetoed from the state budget — said he would create the inspector general post. It had not yet been filled as of last week. DOT spokeswoman Rebecca Kikkert said in a statement that the hiring process is underway.

Walker’s executive order creating the inspector general position says its mission will be “to investigate and review department programs and initiatives for inefficiencies, waste, fraud and abuse.” It also will “advise the secretary and the governor about ways to increase efficiency and implement cost savings measures in the department.”

The inspector must submit a report to the DOT Secretary in December 2018, just after the next election, detailing findings and “recommendations for reform,” according to the order.

Debate centers on DOT resources

Sanfelippo and Sen. David Craig, R-Big Bend, introduced a bill earlier this year to create a DOT inspector general. There was a key difference between their bill and Walker’s order: it would have had the inspector report to the Legislative Audit Bureau instead of the DOT Secretary.

“It seems hard for a subordinate to be in the role of whistle-blower or raising flags occurring within the department,” said Craig Thompson, director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, an alliance of businesses, labor, local government and other groups.

Sanfelippo and Craig are among the Republican lawmakers who have emphasized the need for DOT to operate more frugally. That argument largely won out in the recently completed state budget debate, during which other Republicans, including Assembly GOP leaders, advocated for more revenues — likely through tax or fee increases — to fund roads and bridges.

But Walker balked at such increases; he and the most conservative lawmakers said DOT first should seek more ways to cut spending. The new budget also delays massive freeway projects in southeast Wisconsin and cuts funding for highway resurfacing and reconstruction work.

Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said Walker’s creation of the inspector general position is meant to distract the public from his administration’s refusal to properly fund the state’s roads and bridges.

“None of this has anything to do with what the real problem in transportation funding is,” Hintz said.

The inspector general concept stems from the federal government, where 73 inspectors general work “to prevent and detect waste, fraud, and abuse” in their respective agencies. About half are appointed by the president subject to U.S. Senate confirmation; the others are appointed by the heads of their agencies.

The other inspector general position in state government is in the Department of Health Services. It focuses on waste and fraud in public assistance programs such as Medicaid, FoodShare and Family Care.

An outside perspective

Craig has advocated for creating inspectors general positions in other state agencies as well. Craig and Sanfelippo both said they’re glad Walker created the DOT inspector post, with Craig predicting it can be a “proactive agent inside the agency.”

But Craig said he’d still like to see his bill become law.

“The IG, under an executive order, will only be as good as the reform appetite within the agency,” Craig said.

Craig last session proposed to completely abolish the Legislative Audit Bureau — a bid that faltered amid sharp backlash.

The bureau’s recent work included a scathing audit of the state highway program inside DOT released earlier year. It found DOT dramatically underestimated the cost of major highway projects by failing to account for inflation and other factors, with costs on 16 projects ballooning by more than $3 billion since lawmakers approved them.

State Auditor Joe Chrisman said he doesn’t necessarily see duplication between the new inspector general and his bureau. Those who provide oversight within public agencies often work closely with management, he said, while his bureau has a different role.

“We can apply that outside perspective,” Chrisman said.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.