Washington’s many statewide elected officials dilute effectiveness of state government.
We elect too many statewide officials. Nine of them.
I’ll pause here while you name the offices — extra credit if you can identify five or more of the incumbents.
Time’s up. Here’s the list: Gov. Jay Inslee, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Treasurer Jim McIntire, Secretary of State Kim Wyman, Auditor Troy Kelley, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark.
It’s too long, taking up too much column space and too much space on the ballot. As I’ve written before, this structural albatross reduces accountability, frustrates effective coordination within the bureaucracy and makes state government less responsive.
Restructuring the executive branch isn’t interior design, reshuffling the organizational boxes or rearranging the deck chairs. Getting the structure right matters because it’s key to putting the right players in the right places to advance the executive’s policy and administrative priorities.
Clearly, I’m not talking about Kelley, the guy who’s even now being cut out of the group photos. Now under federal criminal indictment for past business practices, he will be gone in time, most likely at a time of his own reluctant choosing. As an elected official, rather than an appointed member of the governor’s cabinet, he is tough to fire.
Kelley’s alleged criminality, though, is neither symptomatic nor representative of the problems inherent in what political scientists call the unbundled executive. Perversely, the larger problems of governance stem from elected officials doing what they think they should be doing. Recent events in Olympia offer a pair of good examples.
In these, the final days of the regular legislative session, Dorn and McIntire held a pair of joint education-funding news conferences. To no one’s surprise, Dorn proposed an education budget spending nearly $1 billion more than either of those passed by the state House and Senate. While he offered some good ideas, few were new and none warranted the news conference.
McIntire, an economist and former legislator, has long championed tax reform. Complementing Dorn’s spending plan, he proposed a long-term revenue plan including a state income tax offset by reductions in property, sales and business taxes. He calls it a “conversation starter,” though in some circles that conversation never ceases. In others, true, it never begins and is unlikely to start now.
The merits of their ideas aside, it’s unproductive to have statewide elected officials lobbying each other, the Legislature and the public in pursuit of their policy goals. That, however, is the inevitable outcome of electing a bunch of chiefs. To avoid the inevitable, you must change the structure.
The nation’s founders chose to put one person in charge. We don’t elect the president’s cabinet. Instead, we rely on the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress to protect against the abuse of presidential power.
Most states, instead, chose to dilute executive authority. But only three elect more statewide officials than Washington.
There have been efforts to trim the number, all unsuccessful. For reasons populist, partisan or personal, lawmakers are reluctant to reduce the number of elected positions. Politicians preserve their options. Down-ticket offices offer eventual upward mobility for legislators and secure posts for the happy incumbents.
Most recently, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed making the superintendent of public instruction a member of the governor’s cabinet.
In a Seattle Times guest column in her final days in office, Gregoire wrote, “We need a single, cabinet-level Department of Education to unite the state’s multiple education agencies … the secretary should be recruited from the best and the brightest across the country.”
Similarly, former Michigan Gov. John Engler recently talked about that state’s “almost impossible” structure, with the governor unable to appoint his education superintendent.
We hold governors accountable for education, environment, health-care and insurance policies, for managing the state budget and much more. It only makes sense to give them the authority required to do the job. Some will argue for retaining independently elected watchdogs to oversee elections, audit public agencies, manage the state’s money and provide legal services. Fair enough, retain the elected secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and attorney general — offices with limited authority for policy or state governance (incumbents’ ambitions notwithstanding).
For the rest, elect the governor and lieutenant governor as a team, let the governor form the cabinet and let accountability follow authority. It has to be an improvement on what we have now.