Governors should do something to improve the way the government functions


Mike Michaud has now released his economic plan, and all three major candidates for governor are on record with their ideas for boosting Maine’s perennially lagging economy. Michaud’s is the most substantive of the lot, with proposals such as a tuition-free sophomore year of college.

But, truth be told, governors, unlike presidents, have only a marginal effect on the economy’s rise or fall. For at least 40 years, candidates have lamented the dearth of good jobs and the resulting exodus of talented young people. A nearly forgotten two-time Republican nominee, Jim Erwin, kicked off his 1974 campaign with just such a statement.

Governors can have negative effects, though. Gov. Paul LePage has done his best to sabotage the state’s most promising new industry, windpower, and his decision to squelch public investment by impounding bond issues has had equally dismal consequences.

But building an economy that grows faster than the national norm? That will take a team effort, and many different factors; a governor can’t single-handedly lift that kind of weight.

So what can we expect of candidates, something that would make a real difference? How about overhauling the antiquated structure of state government to make it more respected, more effective, and more accountable to the people?

Strangely enough, we rarely hear such proposals. Ken Curtis – that would be back in 1974 – was the last governor to show much interest in bringing the State House up to snuff.

So here are some modest proposals, free for the taking to any candidate who’d like to accomplish something important.

Let’s start with Maine’s hopelessly moribund system of choosing its attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer. If you consult the state constitution, you’ll find that these are important offices, given equal space to the governor. Yet Maine still allows the Legislature to select them – an undemocratic practice followed in no other state ever since the 17th Amendment provided for direct election of U.S. senators 100 years ago.

Some 39 states elect their attorneys general, and in the others the AG is usually a member of the governor’s cabinet. No other state creates the awkward pattern by which the legislative branch is responsible for defending the executive branch in court.

But it’s the candidate pool that’s the biggest problem. In practice, the attorney general is picked by the majority caucus, and is almost always a former legislator, usually a House member. And because AGs have always been attorneys, that limits the talent pool at any one time to about 10 people. Surely a state of 1.3 million residents can do better.

The same is true for the secretary of state, who supervises elections, and the treasurer, who we entrust with the full faith and credit of the state. Most of the holders of these three offices have been at least competent, but I can think of no reason, after nearly 200 years of statehood, why Maine shouldn’t provide clear lines of authority, with the obvious solution statewide election.

Perhaps the most inadequate talent pool, however, is that of the most important office of all, governor. Maine is almost alone is electing only its governor to statewide office. We search high and low for candidates that are abundant in other states. Vermont elects all these officials, plus a lieutenant governor. No one is seriously considered for the top job in Vermont unless they’ve served in at least one other statewide post.

In Maine, we’re not sure where to find governors. Since the tradition of promoting Senate presidents ended with John Reed (1966), we’ve pretty much stuck with our congressional representatives (John McKernan, John Baldacci and now possibly Michaud), or with outsiders who at least are independents on paper. Jim Longley and Angus King were former Democrats, and Eliot Cutler is such a career Democrat, serving in the Carter administration, that he seems independent in name only.

Of the three outsiders we’ve elected over four decades – Longley, Angus King and now LePage, we’ve struck out twice. Those are terrible odds for any state.

Voters, if asked, would love the idea of electing three more state officials. The constitutional amendment to do it would be ratified easily. But I’m also convinced that unless a governor runs on this issue, and makes it an important part of his legislative program, it will never happen. The Legislature likes the current system too much to ever furnish the necessary two-thirds vote to amend without a big push from a governor. Even then, it would be tough.

How to ensure it succeeds? We’ll consider that in the next installment.

 Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 29 years. He can be reached at [email protected]