16 July 2009

Against Electing Treasurers

The state treasurer in Colorado, a job currently filled by Cary Kennedy, a very competent and honest Democrat, is elected on a statewide partisan ballot, just like the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of State. But, the job is technocratic.

The state treasurer is charged with investing state funds (including involvement in the management of the state retirement system, PERA), with confirming that requests to spend funds from the executive branch are authorized by law, with implementing directions to borrow money made by the Governor with legislative authorization, with handling claims to abandoned property, with claculating interest rates according to legal formulas, with calculating the inflation indexed value of certain statutory dollar amounts, and not a whole lot else.

The budget is handled by the Governor and the Joint Budget Committee of the legislature. The Colorado Department of Revenue, which collects taxes, reports to the Governor, not to the Treasurer. The state treasurer is basically the chief bank officer of Colorado, and has no partisan policymaking authority.

I've been asked, "Why are you so adamant that the Treasurer doesn't do anything?"

There is a reason. It is because I am one of those old fashion good government advocates at heart.

I am a firm believer in superiority of appointees in positions where the public where technocratic expertise is important and policy preferences are not very important. I am also very wary of the nature tendency of partisan elections to such posts to politicize matters that should not be political. I think that the late 19th century/early 20th century progressives did us a great disservice by making so many posts elective.

In the same vein, I am opposed to Colorado's current practice of electing on a partisan basis county treasurers, county assessors, county coroners, and county surveyors. All of these posts should be appointive. Sooner or later, selecting people for these offices in partisan races leaves you with somone who isn't competent. For example, elected coroners have led to serious problems both in Colorado (where it threw a wrench in the organ donation process) and in Philadelphia. Denver, meanwhile, probably is one of the financially best managed municipalities in the nation, and not coincidentally, has a mayorally appointed CFO rather than an elected county treasurer like most of the other counties in the state. One need look no further than Jefferson County and Araphoe County in the past few years to see the problems involved in putting partisan elected officials in charge of jobs like county treasurer and clerk and recorder (remember Tracy Baker).

I also favor stripping the non-electoral functions of the Secretary of State from the office (Colorado has suffered maladministration of those non-partisan duties regularly under political appointees over the past couple of decades), and either centralizing election administation responsibilities at the state level (perhaps under the direction of the same blue ribbon committee charged with redistricting) or segregating them from the duties of the clerk and recorder at the county level, where they would be put in the charge of a non-partisan appointee. How can we ever expect that elections run by partisan elected officials will avoid the appearance of impropriety. Remember Katherine Harris. This is hardly a radical suggestion. It is the international norm.

Also, one of the things that is a barrier to meaningful mass participation in elections is the sheer length of the ballot. Any contested race requires a voter who his making a good faith effort to make a good choice to spend more time engaged in research, and leaves those who do not feeling as if they are ill informed and not fully worthy of voting. Denver is better than most, and we at least do not have contested or partisan races for judicial office in Colorado. But, we could do much better.

Individually, putting an fundamentally non-political office on the ballot doesn't do much to change the burden on a voter. But, collectively, the long ballot does take its toll. We don't need to go to the extreme of the Canadians and British, who have only a single set of candidates running for a single office on the ballot at any one time. But, slimming down the ranks of elected officials would improve the quality of government.

There is also a widespread misperception, which partisan candidates have no incentive to dispell, that the state treasurer has meaningful discretionary power over the state budget and over tax collection. The the budget is made by the Governor and Joint Budget Committee, that many close calls under TABOR are the subject of opinions of the Attorney General, and that the Colorado Department of Revenue reports to the Governor rather than the Treasurer. But, a lot of voters don't realize that and choose someone for the office on the assumption that it has greater policy making authority than it actually does.

I have nothing against Cary Kennedy, and state treasurer is a job (or at least a group of jobs) that someone has to do well. But, I do have a big problem when people misperceive what is involved in the job, and I do have a problem with the larger issue of electing partisans to technocratic jobs.


Chris said...
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Dave Barnes said...
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Dave Barnes said...


You, sir, are an elitist snob.

Next, you will be supporting the idea of appointing judges rather than electing them.


victor said...
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