FILE – Oregon state Capitol building cherry blossoms

The Oregon state Capitol building in Salem

(The Center Square) – Oregon's books show the state incorrectly counted billions of federal dollars in 2020, according to an audit from the Secretary of State.

The news comes from a report released on Wednesday by the Secretary of State, which found $6.4 billion in accounting errors over the past year from 14 federal programs. None of the money in question is assumed to be lost or stolen but improperly recorded.

That number is higher than any year in recent memory, which typically sees errors in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2017, for instance, the total was $690 million

Oregon receives around $12 billion in federal grant money yearly to pay for such programs as agricultural research, public safety, and homeland security. In 2020, that number shot up to $17 billion in 2020 in light of the pandemic. That money paid for personal protective equipment, Medicaid and unemployment insurance payouts—all of which saw record expenditures over the past year.

Based on the auditor's findings, the Oregon Employment Department saw increased expenditures from a four-year average of $586 million to $4.7 billion in response to the pandemic. COVID-19-induced shutdowns increased unemployment from a 10-year low of 3.7% in July of 2019 to 10.3% in June of 2020. 

Oregon's Medicaid program saw the most money leave its coffers in 2020 of any state program, the audit found. While costs to provide low-income families with health care coverage grows every year, the rate of increase rose from an average of 4% to 10% this year or an increase of $9.3 billion to $11.5 billion.

The state is required to report where its federal dollars are going on an annual basis to the federal government. In all, auditors found 121 errors made in 2020. That's as much as the total errors reported in 2018 and 2019 combined.

Auditors did question the actual costs of $5.1 million in federal money spent by state agencies. Most of that money, or $4.2 million, was spent by the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF).

"The CCDF questioned costs at the Department of Human Services were due to calculation errors, multiple provider copays, and lack of documentation to support payments," the report states. "For CCDF at the Oregon Department of Education, the questioned costs were largely due to payments made beyond the allowed period of time and unallowable payroll charges."

Accounting errors are defined as unintended mistakes by the Secretary of State's office. Each of them is subject to recommended adjustments. 

The audit released this week also pored over 38 other accounting errors made by a host of state agencies dating back to 2016. Auditors found 12 of them remain uncorrected.

The audit said agencies hadn't learned from previous mistakes. 

"Some findings remain uncorrected from one year to the next because agencies do not correct the underlying issues that cause the noncompliance or control weaknesses," the report states. "While some findings take time and resources to correct, others may remain simply because management does not make it a priority to address them."

State agencies in Oregon have been the target of criticism since the onset of the pandemic. The Oregon Employment Department (OED) has received some of the most complaints about weeks-long delays in payouts and fraudulent claims, something common in each state. Last spring, OED officials announced it had begun the process of modernizing its aging computer system. It is due for completion by 2024.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.