8-3 Should Gov. Appoint Elected State Officials?
By JAY MILLER
SANTA FE -- Should the governor get to appoint the other state officials whom we now elect? That was one of the questions considered by the Legislature's Task Force on Ethics Reform at its meeting last week in Socorro.
At this meeting, the focus was on making the state auditor an appointive official. But the same arguments, pro and con, basically apply to the other elective offices: secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and land commissioner. In addition, the five members of the Public Regulation Commission also are elective.
You've probably noticed that the U.S. president gets to appoint his entire administration. He even appoints his vice president, although technically, the nominating convention makes that choice. In New Mexico, the lieutenant governor has to run in the primary election.
So should New Mexico copy the federal system rather than having 11 elective executive branch offices below the governor. It makes for what is called the plural executive. It also is called a weak executive because the governor has to share power with all of them.
In a small state, it was thought that down-ballot state offices should be elected because voters would know the candidates and responsibility would be spread.
But in 21st century New Mexico, few people know the candidates for minor state offices. In fact, only a small percentage of New Mexicans can name any statewide elected official below the governor, with the possible exception of the lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Back in the '60s, E. Lee Francis was lieutenant governor during the Dave Cargo administration. When senators would join the House for a joint session, the House sergeant-at-arms would introduce the lieutenant governor as "Francis E, Lee."
The recent scandals in the state treasurer's office are an apt demonstration of what happens when people don't know an elected official and have no idea what is going on in that office even after a new treasurer was elected.
Had the treasurer been a gubernatorial appointee, there would have been accountability up the ladder, whistle-blowers would have had a place to go and the offender could have been removed at the first hint of wrongdoing.
The argument to that might be that an independently elected official can act in an instance when the chief executive is off base. Some things might have been done differently at the federal level if attorney general Alberto Gonzalez had been able to call the president on some of his human rights decisions.
For his part, state Auditor Hector Balderas argued that the auditor's position should be independent in order to keep audits independent. He has a point. Maybe some state offices should be independent and others would work better as part of the governor's administration.
The attorney general's office benefits by being the people's attorney, accountable only to voters. Maybe the secretary of state should be independent because that office handles elections.
But the treasurer's office would operate better under the governor. So would the land commissioner and the public regulation commissioners. Even the lieutenant governor should be chosen as a running mate by the governor.
When the two are at odds, such as when Lt. Gov. Casey Luna decided he'd rather be governor, Bruce King was in a quandary whenever he needed to leave the state.
When a state Constitutional Convention proposed a new document for New Mexico, it called for leaving only the auditor and land commissioner independent. The constitution was narrowly defeated. Loss of the elective franchise was thought to be a major reason for the defeat.
New Mexico voters never have liked giving up their right to vote for as many public officials as possible, even if they don't know anything about them.
But four years ago, Gov. Bill Richardson and a majority of legislators managed to convince voters to do away with the 10 elected members of the state Board of Education. So there is a possibility for change.
JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail) firstname.lastname@example.org