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It’s that special time of year. New growth is turning Maine a lush green, gardens are being planted in yards, and some Augusta Democrats are trying to raise taxes.
Oh, and we’re having our perennial debate over how we choose constitutional officers.
By the Bangor Daily News’ count, we’ve tried this 103 times so far. Without success.
The first reason notes — correctly — that we are the only state to select our attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer in this manner. Accordingly, we’re an oddball that should fall in line with the national consensus.
The second point decries the “insider” nature of the selection process, where well-connected politicians — often party leaders — land the offices on the good graces of a partisan legislative majority. It is anathema to the idea of a meritocracy.
The third argument is built atop the virtue of democracy. Broadening the electorate beyond 186 elected officials in Augusta supposedly carries its own merit.
These rationales are well-founded, as is the argument in favor of reform. But it does not mean “direct election” of constitutional officers is the only possible solution.
While the vast majority of states — and the constitutional amendment going before the Legislature — provide for the direct election of officials like the secretary of state and attorney general, the federal government offers a different model.
The president, in his role as the duly-elected chief executive of the nation, chooses the men and women to fill those important jobs. The Senate, in its role as the upper chamber of Congress, provides advice and consent to those selections.
There is no reason why that model couldn’t be the one we adopt in Maine.
Start from where we are. If the GOP wins the midterm elections for Congress next year, does anyone think “good governance” is well served by having Sen. Mitch McConnell lead the selection of the attorney general for the final two years of President Joe Biden’s first term?
Of course not. So that helps advance an argument in favor of reform.
But does anyone think our problems in Maine stem from a lack of statewide political campaigns? Will more lawn signs, radio ads and terrible television commercials provide a material improvement to our economy or environment?
Advocates of the “direct election” approach suggest that these positions are so very important that they warrant a statewide vote. But does anyone believe the state treasurer’s work (sorry, Henry Beck) is more important than the work of the commissioner of Health and Human Services? Or the commissioner of Public Safety?
So, if we can entrust the governor — whoever it may be — to choose their own commissioners, why wouldn’t we trust them to choose these other offices?
This reform could also help address another peculiarity of Maine’s government. Right now, heaven forbid, if something happened to Gov. Janet Mills, Senate President Troy Jackson would move into the Blaine House. They are both Democrats, but they have very different outlooks on a lot of issues. In fact, Mills vetoed one of Jackson’s bills in the last Legislature.
As part of a reform, the secretary of state could wear a second hat as the lieutenant governor and stand for election on a ticket. It would reduce the potential for policy whipsaws if something happened to a governor. The attorney general could be appointed by the governor to a firm term to help ensure continued independence.
The state treasurer can keep signing checks, returning Mainers’ unclaimed property.
The simple fact is that none of this is going to happen this year. The bill to provide direct election of constitutional officers will receive heartfelt, soaring floor speeches about its myriad merits. And then it will fail to receive the necessary two-thirds vote and promptly find itself on the scrap heap with its 103 predecessors.
So with our 105th attempt next year or the year after, maybe we can try a different approach. Joe Biden gets to select his own attorney general. Why shouldn’t Janet Mills?