State offices in need of reform


Gov. Mike Beebe made a good choice last week in appointing longtime legislative auditor Charles Robinson to complete the term of state Treasurer Martha Shoffner, who resigned May 21 after being accused of taking cash from a broker in return for state business.

It sort of makes you wonder why we don’t let the governor appoint the treasurer all the time, doesn’t it?

Of course, Beebe was only exercising his constitutional duty to fill a vacancy in the office, something that doesn’t happen often. Arkansas’ 1874 Constitution prescribes that we the people should elect the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer of state, auditor of state, attorney general and commissioner of state lands.

Some critics have suggested that Shoffner, a real estate agent and businesswoman before she got into politics, wasn’t qualified to be treasurer. But under the Constitution she was as qualified as anyone else.

That’s because we don’t require much of our seven state constitutional officers. The most stringent requirement is for governor, who must be a citizen of the United States, at least 30 years old and a resident of Arkansas for seven years — not necessarily consecutive. By extension, and under Amendment 6, the lieutenant governor must meet the same qualifications.

For all the rest the only qualification needed is the same for all civil officers — that they must reside within the state and be registered to vote. Those specifications, by the way, can be found in Article 19, Miscellaneous Provisions.

Oh, yeah, there’s one more, which actually comes before those two provisions. Anyone who fights in a duel, or serves as a second to one who does, cannot hold public office for 10 years.

That means, in effect, you don’t even have to be an attorney to be attorney general. The prescribed duties of the office, though, make it quite helpful.

The offices of state land commissioner and state auditor could be filled by almost anyone — and often have been. Why we need to have such positions, much less elect them statewide, is a good question.

Secretary of state and treasurer have important duties. The secretary of state keeps up with the Capitol and grounds, serves a critical role in elections and maintains many records. The treasurer manages some $3 billion in state investments.

But there is absolutely no reason for Arkansas to elect seven state constitutional officers. In doing so, we create one important executive office (governor) and six little fiefdoms, each responsible to no one until the next election. OK, the lieutenant governor is only part-time and has little to do, unless the governor dares to go out of state.

One can make a good argument for only three — governor, lieutenant governor (if it’s important to have a direct line of succession) and the attorney general, who probably needs to have some independence. Now that we have a two-party system in Arkansas, we should specify that candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run together as part of a ticket. We found out early in U.S. history that it’s not too smart having political rivals holding the top two executive positions. Duels result. Why haven’t the states figured that out?

The other offices, if needed, should be appointed by the governor. That would give us a more cohesive state government and probably more competent people in office. If not, we could hold the governor accountable.

While we’re at it, let’s abolish the state auditor and land commissioner, re-assign their duties elsewhere and redistribute their salaries to the other positions.

We pay the state treasurer $54,000 a year — about the same as a city or county treasurer — to manage $3 billion in state funds, and we usually get what we pay for — a political hack.

If the General Assembly wants to do something useful, it should propose a constitutional amendment to reorganize the constitutional offices.

No effective organization has seven “bosses,” each with prescribed but intersecting duties. Even if the governor, for example, sees incompetence in the treasurer’s office — and he surely did — he is powerless to do anything about it. We don’t have that problem with the director of the State Police or the head of the Department of Finance and Administration.

Unfortunately, our county government is modeled on the same ineffective organizational structure. Each county elects six or seven executive officers, each with certain duties but only accountable to the voters.

In theory, the county judge is the chief administrator, and he, with the advice and consent of the quorum court (our county legislature), has some control over the purse strings.

Again, though, the county judge can’t really act to deal with incompetence. Craighead County provides an excellent example. For years state auditors were waving red flags over procedures in the office of County Clerk Nancy Nelms, but no one did anything until the Internal Revenue Service was about ready to take over the courthouse. Only then did the voters act.

However, each quorum court has the power to change this. Amendment 55 gives each the power to “create, consolidate, separate, revise or abandon any elective county office or offices,” subject to a vote of the people at the end of a term, which for county offices is every two years.

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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royosuddenlink.net.