CONTRIBUTORS

Constitutional officers should be accountable to Maine voters

Posted May 13, 2013, at 1 p.m.
Last modified May 13, 2013, at 2:13 p.m.

Maine’s official state motto is Dirigo, which means “I lead.” The phrase is a fitting one for a state that prides itself on its independence.

But in one case, we are leading in the wrong direction.

Maine remains one of the only states to have its constitutional officers elected by its Legislature. In nearly every other U.S. state the attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer are all elected by the voting public.

In Maine, our state legislators nominate candidates for constitutional officers. They are then elected by winning a majority of votes in a joint convention of the Legislature.

The problem with this antiquated system is that it leaves the people of Maine with very little say in who holds these important positions.

Consider their responsibilities.

The attorney general is the state’s lead prosecutor in criminal and civil matters. Among other important tasks, they give opinions on legal matters to the governor, Legislature and state agencies. They also prosecute claims to recover money for the state and enforce the proper distribution of funds given to public charities.

The secretary of state has a wide variety of responsibilities, including overseeing state elections and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The secretary is also in charge of the Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions and maintaining the State Archives.

The state treasurer is responsible for the state’s cash and debt management, to include the sale of bonds. The individual in this position also is also a voting member on a number of important boards such as the Maine Housing Authority and the Finance Authority of Maine. They also manage the state’s Unclaimed Property Administration.

Luckily in Maine, we have been fortunate, in most cases, to be well served by those holding these important positions.

But I believe the time has come to rethink our state law that allows them to be unaccountable to the voters.

There’s a reason that the names of our constitutional officers tend to be familiar ones. In the past 25 years, nearly 90 percent of them have been former legislators. It has the appearance of a system in which political favors, rather than the will of the people, are the top priority. Our constitutional offices should not be an elephant graveyard for former lawmakers looking for a job.

The political party that holds the majority in the Legislature decides who is elected to these constitutional positions. Therefore, it would be logical for a cynic to conclude that someone in the minority party, such as me, would naturally want to see voters, rather than legislators, elect them.

But I would like to point out that during the previous Legislature, when Republicans held the majority, a GOP colleague of mine sponsored a bill that would have changed the system to allow voters to elect the attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer.

I was a co-sponsor of that legislation, and I am now, once again, sponsoring a similar bill that would make these important positions ones that are decided by Maine voters, rather than political insiders during backroom deals.

It is my hope that, after careful consideration of this legislation, we will all agree that those who occupy our constitutional offices should be determined by Maine voters and not by political paybacks.

Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, serves on the Maine Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

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