Professional Issues

The State of the States

In 1955, the Tennessee general assembly elected a new comptroller of the treasury, 32-year-old William R. Snodgrass, who had served as director of the budget. And, every two years until his retirement in 1999, the general assembly reelected him. For more than four decades, while overseeing audits of state and local government entities (in Tennessee, the comptroller is the state auditor), Snodgrass also found time to serve on the Financial Accounting Foundation, the Governmental Accounting Standards Advisory Council (which assists GASB) and as president of the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers. Snodgrass was a witness to—and participant in—major changes in government accounting. He spoke to the Journal of Accountancy about the changing patterns in state finance over the years.

"When I first became comptroller, there wasn't a lot of sophistication in the audits or financial accounting in local governments throughout the nation," he said. "In Tennessee, for example, municipalities were required to do only what local charters required, and that meant very little." Not until the late 1950s and 1960s did state laws mandate audits for all government entities, he pointed out. Today, the comptroller's office has the power to audit any government entity. It audits 88 of the 95 county governments and reviews the work of public accounting firms that audit other counties and all municipalities. "But this is not just Tennessee—the movement toward a high level of professionalism and standards for the review of all public funds has been nationwide."

Snodgrass remembers life before GASB and was involved in the transfer of power from a council—associated with the GFOA—which was perceived as not being independent. But an even thornier problem was "bringing order out of chaos," especially for money coming from the federal government. "There was no orderly process for the audit of federal funds. Federal auditors overlapped in some areas and ignored others." Years of effort by state and government authorities finally culminated in the single audit concept adopted in federal legislation.

For Tomorrow's Comptrollers
Looking into the future, Snodgrass envisions problems where finance issues blur into political issues. He sees less money flowing from Washington, forcing states to consider their own positions carefully. "Look at us. Even in a good economy, Tennessee is having problems because we have no personal income tax. Our sales tax can't keep up." On the other hand, he hinted that Tennessee's government could be a model for other states because it shields the comptroller from much of the political process. "The governor is the only official elected statewide. Every other official is appointed or is elected by the state legislature. So you don't waste your time raising funds and campaigning. You don't need to do a lot of public posturing."

When asked what new regulations he foresees, Snodgrass replied, "The GASB has come a long way. I can't say that my philosophy is the same as what some of them are pursuing, but now that I'm retired I'm no longer going to worry myself."

The state legislature has given Snodgrass the title "comptroller emeritus" and is naming a state building after him.


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