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Maine is an outlier, and not in a good way, in how it selects several key positions in state government. Rather than allowing Mainers to directly choose their attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and auditor, our state has long farmed out these important decisions to the Legislature. This needs to change.
Under the Maine Constitution, the attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer are chosen by the Legislature and are thus known as the “constitutional officers.” The state auditor is chosen in the same way, but that is dictated by state statute, not the Constitution.
Our longstanding critique here is not about the people serving in these offices now, but about the process that put them there. Most often, these officials are chosen from the party with the most seats in the Legislature. They frequently are former lawmakers from that party. All four of the current officeholders, for example, have previously served as Democratic legislators.
We’ve said it before. This process often looks more like party musical chairs rather than good governance, with party prominence and career considerations swirling around these decisions about who will lead our state’s legal and law enforcement efforts, oversee its elections, manage its cash and debt, and make sure its funds are being spent properly. Turning these decisions over to Mainers could remove that appearance, and increase the visibility and accountability of these roles.
Legislative Republicans made a symbolic statement against the process in December when the constitutional officers were reelected. Rather than nominate their own candidates, Republicans called for Mainers to be empowered with these decisions instead.
“What we would like to do instead is work to put those positions back into the hands of the people where they firmly belong,” Senate Republican leader Trey Stewart said in December. “Let Maine voters decide who should keep Maine’s government transparent and enforce our laws — that should be the people’s power.”
Frankly, it’s easier to take a principled stand about giving power to the people when you don’t have that power. We have to wonder if Republicans would have been saying the same thing had they regained control of the Legislature in November’s election. But that aside, on substance, they are right.
“House Republicans will propose making this important change to our laws to take power away from politicians and give it to Maine citizens,” House Republican leader Billy Bob Faulkingham said in December.
Last session it was a Democrat, Sen. Joe Baldacci of Bangor, who introduced legislation to make constitutional officers popularly elected rather than selected by the Legislature. He put forth this proposal despite his party controlling both chambers of the Legislature, and effectively controlling the vote for these roles.
While Baldacci is not introducing his own constitutional officers bill this session, he told the BDN Editorial Board this week that he plans to co-sponsor Republican-introduced legislation. Given that his bill passed the Senate but was held up in the House last session, and the oversized role that the House plays in selecting these officers because of its much larger membership, Baldacci believes the effort this time must start in the House.
“I’ll fight for it in the Senate,” Baldacci said. He stressed that he thinks the current officeholders “are doing great jobs” but that he takes issue with the process by which people are selected for these offices. He said they should be determined “by the public, and not by the politicians.”
We agree. And we believe giving these decisions to Mainers would help widen the pool of candidates, while increasing the visibility and public scrutiny of these important positions. Such a move would make them more directly accountable to Mainers, rather than politicians in Augusta.
Now it is up to the politicians, specifically the current Democratic majority, to finally do the hard but necessary thing: Give up some of their power.