Credentials Beat Patronage

Posted Nov. 08, 2010, at 6:35 p.m.

Republican leaders, led by Gov.-elect Paul LePage, deserve credit for looking beyond soon-to-be out-of-office lawmakers to fill the attorney general and secretary of state posts. For too long, Democrats in the Legislature only considered their colleagues for these jobs.

Still, having these important positions filled by the Legislature — rather than voters or the governor — is an outdated system that shortchanges the state.

Maine is the only state in the country in which the Legislature picks the attorney general. It is one of three to have lawmakers choose the secretary of state. The state treasurer and auditor also are chosen by the Legislature.

Last week, Mr. LePage endorsed a former gubernatorial primary rival, Bruce Poliquin, for state treasurer, saying his background in finance and economics qualifies him well for the post.

Charles Summers, a former state senator, Small Business Administration official and Navy Reserve officer, is a candidate for secretary of state. William Schneider, a former state representative and now-assistant U.S. attorney, and outgoing state Sen. Douglas Smith of Dover-Foxcroft, a former probate judge, are interested in the attorney general’s office.

For the “first time in recent history, we may have a state treasurer who actually has credentials to run the monies for the state of Maine,” Mr. LePage said. “It’s high time we get the right people.”

This hasn’t been the trend in recent years.

“The practice of choosing from among lawmakers, usually those who are about to leave the State House because of term limits, in the majority party severely limits candidates for these jobs,” the Bangor Daily News wrote on these pages last year.

A popular election to fill these posts not only would broaden the pool of candidates; it also would create new and needed steppingstones to higher office, including Congress and the Blaine House. A statewide election for attorney general and secretary of state would enable voters to get a closer look at several candidates who may later aspire to the governorship or the U.S. House or Senate. This benefits the public and aspirants to higher office.

Elections, of course, have their downsides. Money sometimes determines the outcome, and records are distorted. But this leads to the other major shortcoming of Maine’s current system — accountability.

Because the state’s constitutional officers don’t answer to the public or the governor, their accountability is limited. Having them elected or appointed by the governor would improve this.

Two bills to change the way the state chooses its attorney general and secretary of state were rejected by lawmakers last year.

Sen. Debra Plowman, a Hampden Republican who was chosen as assistant majority leader by her GOP colleagues last week, proposed to amend the state constitution to have the public elect the attorney general and secretary of state. A decade ago, the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee strongly endorsed such changes, but they were rejected by the full Legislature.

The benefits of changing the selection method — larger pools of qualified candidates, new routes to higher office and more accountability — outweigh the negatives, and lawmakers should seriously consider these proposals.

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