Too many state elected officials
Last updated 11/18/2021 at 10:57am
TVW recently held a Q&A event between students and the Gov. Jay Inslee discussing various topics, which included dam breaching, homelessness, climate policy, police reform and vaccine mandates.
One question was about the governance structure of the state and whether there should be more statewide elected officials to help improve bipartisanship. The governor replied instead that there should be fewer statewide elected officials to improve accountability.
At present, the people of Washington elect officials to nine statewide offices (not counting justices to the state Supreme Court). These offices are governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, commissioner of public lands and insurance commissioner. Yet, for many years, there has been a debate about whether this is the most effective way to structure state government.
Today, Washington’s eight other statewide elected officials are independent of the governor. They lobby the Legislature independently, and even work against what the governor is trying to accomplish. Any such conflict is easily resolved in departments that are administered by appointees. If a disagreement arises among cabinet officers, the governor settles it by formulating a single, unified position for his administration, or by dismissing the offending cabinet officer.
Similarly, if the Legislature is unable to reach agreement with a cabinet official over important legislation, the dispute can be taken “over his head” to the governor. The governor may or may not agree with the position the cabinet appointee has taken, but at least the Legislature will get a final answer. The Legislature would know that, through the governor, the executive branch speaks with one voice.
The reason this works is that the governor has direct authority over the performance of appointed officials. They serve at his pleasure and are answerable to him. The governor in turn must report to the voters for the overall performance of the administration.
The state constitution should be amended to abolish the secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction and commissioner of public lands as independently-elected statewide officials. The way the insurance commissioner is selected can be changed by the legislature.
The treasurer, auditor and attorney general, however, carry out an oversight role, working to ensure government agencies are following the law. It is because of this distinction that independent election of these offices makes sense.
As “watchdog officials,” the treasurer, auditor and attorney general (if provided enforcement power) should be restructured as nonpartisan offices as is the case for state Supreme Court justices.
If problems arise with public education, insurance regulation, or management of public lands, voters would know that the solution lies with the governor, who could change the top managers of these areas at any time. If the governor fails to use his or her appointment powers to improve the management of these departments, voters could take that failure into account at election time.
Of course, for true accountability to occur, the separations of power must be respected and lawmaking left to the legislative branch.
– Jason Mercier is the director of the Center of Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center. Email him at [email protected].