Don’t trust any politician with too much power

We New Mexicans don’t trust our politicians. That is built in to our history and the structure of our government.

Some years ago I started wondering why we elect not just a governor but several independent statewide officials: attorney general, state treasurer, state auditor, secretary of state, land commissioner. Those constitutionally established officeholders are not answerable to the governor. Most of them have been that way since statehood.

My guess is we do not trust anybody enough to hand over all the power for running the state.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this system. One disadvantage is our “long ballot.” Voters have a number of offices to consider and some of us vote without making enough of an effort to learn about them.

Former treasurers Michael Montoya and Robert Vigil (Vigil was auditor before he was treasurer) went to prison for mishandling public funds after receiving kickbacks from investment advisors. What did we know about them before we elected them?

We also elect the five-member Public Regulation Commission. The PRC is a recent creation, having replaced (by constitutional amendment) both the elected State Corporation Commission and the appointed Public Utilities Commission.

The PRC is interesting because it reflects attitudes of the last 20 years. Many New Mexicans are dissatisfied with the PRC because it deals with highly technical issues and yet the law as we approved it did not require its members to be especially qualified (qualification requirements have since been added). So why did we choose this approach for a commission that sets utility rates when we could have had a commission appointed by the governor?

One reason, in my opinion, is that we don’t want to give our governors that much authority. Members of a commission appointed by any governor could be pressured by the governor and fired by the governor. We preferred to have the authority spread out.

We spread the authority even further when we passed another constitutional amendment, moving the insurance superintendent’s office out from under the PRC.

The superintendent is also independent, appointed by an elaborately structured body called the insurance nominating commission, which is required to be bipartisan and to represent both the insurance industry and consumers.

We went the other way once in recent history. We were frustrated with our education system under the elected State Board of Education and demanding greater accountability from the governor.  So we went along with Gov. Bill Richardson and amended the state constitution to move governance of education into a cabinet agency headed by a governor-appointed secretary. How we have loved the results of that! So much so, as we say goodbye to just-resigned secretary Hanna Skandera, that legislation was introduced last year to undo the whole scheme and go back to the old state board (the bill never came close to passage).

New Mexico is not alone in having several independent statewide positions. The website Ballotpedia tells us 35 states elect their secretary of state; 43 states elect their attorney general; 36 elect their treasurer.

It could be argued that this widespread dilution of responsibility may be a weakness and could be partially responsible for our state’s current economic woes.

However, here is another thought.

I sometimes think the presidency of the United States is too big a job for any one person. The president and vice president are the only persons elected at the national level. Though the vice president can’t be fired by the president, he has almost no independent powers. The entire executive branch reports to one person.

Watching the recent spectacle in Washington, I have wondered how things might be different if at the national level we had a separately elected attorney general who did not answer to the president.

It’s completely unrealistic to think such a thing could happen. I’m just asking.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2017

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