EDITORIALS

More accountability, standards for attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer

Former Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills speaks to area democrats at the start of the Penobscot County Democratic Caucus at the Bangor Civic Center in Bangor in February 2012.
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Former Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills speaks to area democrats at the start of the Penobscot County Democratic Caucus at the Bangor Civic Center in Bangor in February 2012. Buy Photo
Posted Dec. 09, 2012, at 8:53 a.m.
Newly elected Secretary of State Matt Dunlap stands after the results were announced Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012  during a joint convention to elect constitutional officers in Augusta.
Joel Page | AP
Newly elected Secretary of State Matt Dunlap stands after the results were announced Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 during a joint convention to elect constitutional officers in Augusta.

The new Democratic majority in the 126th Maine Legislature reverted to the party’s old ways by electing three former Democratic legislators as constitutional officers for the next two years.

After a two-year hiatus, Democrats Matthew Dunlap of Old Town will return as secretary of state, and Janet Mills of Farmington will come back as attorney general. Neria Douglass, a former legislator from Auburn who most recently served as state auditor, won the new Legislature’s approval to become state treasurer.

The trio may be qualified, but the only people who got a chance to make that determination were 186 new legislators sworn in Wednesday. In practice, that number shrinks to 89 Democrats in the House and 19 Democrats in the Senate — because the partisan nature of constitutional officer elections gives the majority party control of selecting the secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer.

Maine alone among U.S. states entrusts the Legislature to elect its attorney general. It’s one of only three states that relies on lawmakers to pick the secretary of state.

With few exceptions, the pool of candidates for positions that oversee Maine’s elections, guide its legal division and write the state’s checks consists of former legislators. Outgoing State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin was a rare constitutional officer who lacked legislative experience, and attorney general candidate Tim Shannon of Yarmouth was the only Democrat without legislative service nominated this year by his party for any of the constitutional offices. He lost to Mills by secret ballot in a party caucus vote.

This biennial legislative popularity contest feeds an already insular political environment within the State House and begs for greater accountability. It has troubled lawmakers — mostly Republicans — for years.

Past legislatures rejected all efforts to amend the Maine Constitution to allow a statewide vote on the three constitutional officers, plus the state auditor whom legislators elect to a four-year term. The most recent, LD 1261, a 2011 proposal that was co-sponsored by current House Republican leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, succumbed to an “Ought Not to Pass” recommendation from the State and Local Government Committee, despite the fact that the GOP held legislative majorities. An unwillingness to cede political power cuts across party lines.

The BDN has called consistently for a more open selection process. Two years ago, we wrote, “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.”

We still believe that’s the case, but given state government’s ongoing budget travails and other critical concerns, such as education reform and energy policy, it seems unlikely that a constitutional amendment will be considered.

So revising state law to establish clear criteria — other than currying favor with a majority of legislators — for the constitutional officer positions would be a doable, positive step.

Other than the requirement that the attorney general “ must be a member in good standing of the bar of the state,” Maine’s statutes related to constitutional officers list no qualifications for the jobs.

By law, the state auditor “shall be a certified public accountant or a college graduate with not less than six years of experience as a professional accountant or auditor, including not less than five years of auditing experience, of which not less than four years shall have been in a supervisory capacity.”

No such job description exists for the state treasurer. At the very least, Maine law should change to require a degree in business, financial management or equivalent experience for the treasurer.

The secretary of state’s responsibilities are broader and more difficult to define. But at a minimum, state law should call on candidates to demonstrate managerial experience and proficiency.

Maine lists job specifications and required qualifications for state jobs from accountants to warehouse safety managers. Doing so for constitutional officers would show Mainers that the state’s new legislators are serious about placing efficiency above politics.

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