Sunday, March 01, 2009

Continuing the cycle of devolving power

John Nichols of the Capital Times suggests that power is too concentrated in the governor and suggests returning power to the Secretary of State and the State Treasurer.

A number of states are engaged in serious discussions about how to make government more democratic, responsive and accountable. These discussions are wide-ranging and involve everything from proposals in Illinois and Minnesota to restructure election calendars to debates about creating elected attorney general positions in Alaska and New Jersey.

Wisconsin should open up a democratic dialogue.

Perhaps we could begin by asking:

1. Why not give the elected state treasurer some real responsibility as a budgetary and fiscal watchdog? Couldn't we bring more accountability to the process of investing state money by giving more responsibility to an elected treasurer and the professional staff?

2. Instead of an unaccountable Government Accountability Board (and its predecessor, the dysfunctional state Elections Board), why not have the secretary of state oversee a professional staff that organizes and manages elections? That's how most other states do it, and it would create an electoral forum -- in the form of the secretary of state contest -- for discussing how elections are run.

3. Does it really make sense to elect the governor and lieutenant governor as a team? Isn't this just a bow to political parties, guaranteeing them control of the executive branch even if a governor dies or resigns? Is there an argument for going back to the system of electing governors and lieutenant governors separately -- a system that functioned well as recently as the 1960s, when Republican Warren Knowles served as governor while Democrat Pat Lucey (a future governor) served as lieutenant governor?

4. Are four-year terms a good idea? Vermont and New Hampshire still elect governors and other statewide constitutional officers to two-year terms, and both states are functioning well. (Vermont also elects its governor and lieutenant governor on separate ballot lines.) The argument for four-year terms is that they allow officials to focus on their jobs rather than on getting re-elected. But does anyone really think this is the case? Wouldn't a return to two-year terms make governors and other officials more accountable -- and more inclined to try to make state government function -- if they are going to have to face the voters in short order?

Nichols has no illusions about the current state treasurer, noting her less-than-impressive career path. But perhaps if we gave the office more serious responsibilities than showing up at local fairs with lists of people owed money by the state, then we might expect a more serious election for the position. As state government spending explodes, an independent voice watching the state's finances might be just what we need.