November 11, 2021
By Jason Mercier
TVW recently held a Q&A event between students and the Governor discussing various topics. The full interview is worth watching. Topics included dam breaching, homelessness, climate policy, police reform and vaccine mandates. One question was about the governance structure of the state and whether there should be more statewide elected officials to help improve bipartisanship. The Governor replied instead that there should be fewer statewide elected officials to improve accountability (31 min mark). We agree.
At present the people of Washington elect officials to nine statewide offices (not counting justices to the state supreme court). These offices are Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Auditor, Attorney General, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Commissioner of Public Lands and Insurance Commissioner. Yet for many years there has been a debate about whether this is the most effective way to structure our state government.
One view holds that the best approach is using the “long ballot” to institute the greatest amount of direct democracy, by requiring election of a large number of high-level state officials. This reasoning dates from views held during the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. Others argue a “short ballot” approach is better because the people choose a limited number of top officials, who are then held uniquely responsible for the proper functioning of government.
Proponents of this view say that in practice most people don’t know who is elected to these statewide offices and that elected officials are subject to greater public scrutiny when there are fewer of them. All statewide elected offices, except for Insurance Commissioner, are established by the state constitution. The Insurance Commissioner is also the only one for which the legislature, not the constitution, has established the elective nature of the office.
In contrast to the nine elected positions, all other senior officials in the executive branch are appointed by the Governor. They make up the Governor’s cabinet and include many important positions. Here are some examples:
• Secretary of Social and Health Services;
• Director of Ecology;
• Director of Labor and Industries;
• Director of Agriculture;
• Director of Financial Management;
• Secretary of Transportation;
• Director of Licensing;
• Director of General Administration;
• Director of Revenue;
• Director of Retirement Systems;
• Secretary of Corrections;
• Chief of the State Patrol.
The duties and responsibilities of these appointed officials are similar to other elected officials, like the Secretary of State, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Commissioner of Public Lands or Insurance Commissioner.
Today, Washington’s eight other statewide elected officials are independent of the Governor. They lobby the legislature independently, and even work against what the Governor is trying to accomplish. Any such conflict is easily resolved in departments that are administered by appointees. If a disagreement arises among cabinet officers, the Governor settles it by formulating a single, unified position for his administration, or by dismissing the offending cabinet officer.
Similarly, if the legislature is unable to reach agreement with a cabinet official over important legislation, the dispute can be taken “over his head” to the Governor. The Governor may or may not agree with the position the cabinet appointee has taken, but at least the legislature will get a final answer. The legislature would know that, through the Governor, the executive branch speaks with one voice.
The reason this works is that the Governor has direct authority over the performance of appointed officials. They serve at his pleasure and are answerable to him. The Governor in turn must report to the voters for the overall performance of the administration. The state constitution should be amended to abolish the Secretary of State, Superintendent of Public Instruction and Commissioner of Public Lands as independently-elected statewide officials. The way the Insurance Commissioner is selected can be changed by the legislature.
These four positions should then be restructured as cabinet agencies headed by appointees, making the Governor fully accountable to the people for the actions of these departments of the executive branch.
The Treasurer, Auditor and Attorney General, however, carry out an oversight role, working to ensure government agencies are following the law. It is because of this distinction that independent election of these offices makes sense. As “watchdog officials,” the Treasurer, Auditor and Attorney General (if provided enforcement power) should be restructured as nonpartisan offices as is the case for State Supreme Court Justices.
To ensure the successful transition of power in the event the governor is unable to fulfill his or her duties, it makes sense to have an elected Lieutenant Governor ready to step into the top office. That does not mean, however, that the Lieutenant Governor needs to be elected independently of the governor.
Instead, Washington should model the office of Lieutenant Governor after that of the Vice President of the United States. This would mean that candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor would run on the same ticket.
With fewer statewide elected offices, voters would choose the five highest state officials in four elections, as follows:
1. Governor and Lieutenant Governor;
2. Attorney General;
3. State Treasurer; and
4. State Auditor.
If problems arise with public education, insurance regulation, or management of public lands, voters would know that the solution lies with the governor, who could change the top managers of these areas at any time. If the governor fails to use his or her appointment powers to improve the management of these departments, voters could take that failure into account at election time.
Reducing the number of statewide elected offices would shorten the length of the ballot and more importantly, focus public accountability in a way that people can understand and remember. This would increase accountability both during a governor’s term and in election years when voters are assessing candidates for the state’s top offices.
Of course, for true accountability to occur, the separations of power must be respected and lawmaking left to the legislative branch with the executive branch limited to enactment of the laws adopted. To help improve accountability, Washington should reduce the number of statewide elected officials while adopting emergency powers reform.
-Mercier is the Director of Center for Government Reform for the Washington Policy Center Tri-Cities office