Gov. Paul LePage’s idea to create a lieutenant governor position in Maine is worthy of consideration, as are his still-evolving plans to change how the state’s attorney general and treasurer are chosen. He says he is leaning toward popular election for the AG, which is overdue, but he says he favors gubernatorial appointment of the treasurer.
We are concerned that LePage seeks to diminish the power of the attorney general because of his disputes with Janet Mills, an able attorney general and a Democrat. That he wants an AG who will do his bidding — even if that is not supported by law — highlights the dangers of allowing the governor to appoint the AG and other officers.
Even if his motivations are wrong, the governor’s plan should not be dismissed, as have all previous proposals to change how Maine’s so-called constitutional officers are chosen. They should be elected by the people of Maine.
Under the state Constitution, Maine’s attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer are elected by the state Legislature. (So is the state auditor, but the process for filling that office is written into state statute, not the state constitution.) This often means that the people chosen are former lawmakers or failed candidates from the party that holds a majority in the State House. The election of Terry Hayes as state treasurer last month by a split Legislature was an exception. Hayes served four terms in the Maine House as a Democrat but dropped out of the party after working on the gubernatorial campaign of independent Eliot Cutler. Legislative Republicans nominated her to serve as treasurer.
Maine is the only state where the Legislature elects the attorney general. In 43 states, voters elect the state’s top lawyer. Governors appoint the attorney general in five states, including New Hampshire. In Tennessee, the supreme court names the attorney general to an eight-year term.
Maine is one of only three states that relies on lawmakers to pick the secretary of state. Voters in more than 30 states also elect their secretaries of state and treasurers.
A popular election of these officers would require candidates to raise funds and garner endorsements, which could lead to conflict-of-interest concerns. But, because the state’s constitutional officers don’t answer to the public or the governor, their accountability is limited now.
Popular elections would also raise the visibility of the constitutional officeholders. Currently, there are only three statewide races — for governor and Maine’s two U.S. Senate seats — a reality that frequently draws lamentations that there are too few good candidates to choose from for the state’s top offices. With more high-profile campaigns, Maine voters would get a chance to see and hear from more people who could make good future governors and senators.
The governor’s plan would also create a position of lieutenant governor, who would run for election on a joint ticket with the governor, be first in the line of succession and fulfill the duties currently handled by the secretary of state. Under current law, the president of the Senate takes over if the governor is incapacitated. Maine is one of five states without a lieutenant governor.
The secretary of state, currently Matthew Dunlap, manages a department that oversees elections, the Bureau of Vehicles, the state archives and state corporate filings, among other duties. It is hard to image a lieutenant governor with so many diverse responsibilities. The lieutenant governors of Utah and Alaska, two of three states without secretaries of state, oversee elections. None of the three, which also include Hawaii, oversees drivers licenses and other motor vehicle matters.
LePage faces an uphill fight. All past efforts to change how Maine’s constitutional officers are chosen have failed in the Legislature, in large part because lawmakers don’t want to give up their selection powers.
The governor’s plan isn’t perfect, but it starts a needed conversation, and it deserves serious consideration.