Reimagining state government
We shouldn't be electing politicians to do what should be nonpolitical, technocratic jobs.
Periodically I offer up a column in homage to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. This is one of those columns.
Arizona would have better governance if we shrugged off the remnants of our Progressive Era founding and created a unitary executive branch, in which the only elected official was the governor.
The current elected constitutional row officers – attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, and school superintendent – would be appointed by the governor subject to confirmation by the state Senate, with required and specified technical qualifications.
Our Progressive Era founders created an odd hybrid with these row officers. The state constitution specifies that they exist and are to be elected positions. But the constitution confers upon them no independent authority due to being elected positions, despite claims to the contrary by some holders of the positions. Instead, the constitution says that their powers and duties are as prescribed by law – in other words, as determined by the legislature and the governor.
All of these row offices perform technocratic functions for which political considerations or the exercise of political judgment are not only not required, they are a problem. Which makes filling the positions with politicians a mistake.
Let’s begin with the attorney general. Mark Brnovich has politicized the office more than any other predecessor in my over four decades of observation, by a considerable margin.
Brnovich made what he was doing as attorney general the major component of his unsuccessful campaign to be the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. He didn’t raise much money or develop much in the way of grassroots support. The publicity he could generate from using his current position for grandstanding was all he really had going for him. And he milked it to the max.
The attorney general has two general categories of functions. He provides legal counsel and representation to state agencies. And he has enforcement authority in certain areas, such as civil rights and consumer fraud.
There can be, and has been, tension between these two roles. They should be bifurcated.
In providing legal counsel to state agencies, there should be no ambiguity as to who is the client and who is the lawyer. The attorney general should have the same relationship with state agencies that a private sector lawyer has with his clients.
The prosecutorial function should be separate and independent. To provide some insulation from political influence, the term of office should straddle the political calendar, say for a period of six years.
The secretary of state has three general categories of functions. The office oversees the administration of elections, has a role in enforcing disclosure laws regarding lobbyists and campaign organizations, and serves as a repository for certain documents. Although separating these functions isn’t necessary, a term of office straddling the political calendar to provide a degree of political insulation would also be advisable.
Kimberly Yee won her re-election to the position of state treasurer comfortably, by a 56% to 44% margin. Some are citing this as a benchmark for what a non-Trumpian Republican candidate should have been able to achieve this cycle.
I think that’s an exaggeration. Republicans have a built-in advantage in an election for state treasurer. Rightly or wrongly, the body politic tends to think they will do a better job handling money. Arizona hasn’t elected a Democratic state treasurer since 1964.
Moreover, Yee began this cycle running as a Trumpian candidate for governor. She’s obviously a politician with an eye on other things. She has no deep, abiding interest in making sure state accounts are well maintained or that state investments are productive but prudent. Nor does she have any expertise relevant to achieving those objectives.
Arizona State Government is a $60 billion enterprise. Why in the world would we want a politician, rather than someone with CFO credentials, managing its finances?
The residual GOP advantage did play out in the low-visibility superintendent race, where a deeply flawed Republican candidate, Tom Horne, bested Democratic incumbent Kathy Hoffman, who did a decent job overseeing the technocratic functions of the office.
The state superintendent isn’t a policy-making position. K-12 education policy is set by the legislature and governor and the state Board of Education. The primary function of the superintendent's office is to gather and verify data for the school finance formula, to make sure the schools are receiving the right amount of money for the students they have enrolled. Again, something that would be better done by someone with experience in accounting or school finance, rather than a politician looking to leverage the position for other things.
There is nothing about setting utility rates that should involve political considerations or political judgments. Yet we elect politicians to the Corporation Commission to do it. If we need a mine inspector, there’s utterly no reason to believe that electing one will result in the best candidate getting the job.
State government needs to be politically accountable and responsive. Electing politicians to oversee what should be technocratic functions is a suboptimal way of achieving it. At best, it results in less than optimal performance. At worst, it results in dysfunction, political in-fighting, and incompetence.
Suboptimal is probably the best we can hope for. Voters haven’t been keen on reducing the choices they are empowered to make.
But it’s worth from time to time speculating about what could produce better governance, in the form of a petition to St. Jude if nothing else.
Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org.