Columns » Jay Barth

Arkansas should dump some lt. gov, state treasurer

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I rarely buy arguments that a smaller government is a better government. This is particularly the case in the state of Arkansas where a bare-bone government has often lacked the infrastructure necessary to take care of its foster children, assertively regulate polluted waters, or provide the needed mentoring to help troubled schools turn themselves around.

The ongoing investigation into questionable investment practices in the office of Martha Shoffner, Arkansas's Democratic state treasurer, reminds us that there are a few places where some governmental shrinkage would create a smarter way to do government in the early 21st century. In short, the people of Arkansas should pass a constitutional amendment to eliminate four state offices: state treasurer, state auditor, commissioner of state lands, and lieutenant governor. Left standing would be the most consequential statewide offices and, according to law, the three offices that carry out the important work each decade in redrawing state legislative district lines.

To be fair, a number of important tasks are carried out in three of these lesser offices, but they could just as easily be carried out by administrators in other parts of the executive branch, such as the Department of Finance and Administration. For example, city and county sales tax payments are sent to DFA by the businesses that collect them; they are then passed along to the treasurer's office for redistribution back to the localities. DFA could complete the entire process and removing the treasurer's office from the food chain would enhance efficiency. Some savings would occur from the shifting of responsibilities, but other agencies would have to grow to take up the slack. Even more important is the fact that professionalization would result from experienced workers carrying out these important tasks instead of the staffers of the constitutional officers often hired more for their loyalty during a campaign than their qualifications for the job.

The lieutenant governor's duties are more purely ceremonial — presiding over the Senate and gaining the powers of the governor (archaically) when he leaves the state or (importantly) when he vacates the office. The Senate duties are easily picked up by the elected president pro tem of that body. While Arkansas needs a clear succession plan when the governor's office comes open, six other states do not elect a lieutenant governor. Since it is important that anyone serving as governor be a person elected by the entire state's voters, the secretary of state could move into the office if it were left vacant.

The salaries of the four officeholders total just over $200,000 annually. While a chunk of the salary costs could be saved along with the ongoing operational costs of each office, a portion of the salaries should be redistributed to the three remaining offices, especially attorney general and secretary of state. The governor's office brings with it a variety of perks including a home and food, but those in the other offices are expected to make it on salaries of $72,794 (for the attorney general) and $54,594 (for the secretary of state) annually. Public servants are supposed to give of themselves through making less than they would in the private sector. When the most skilled attorneys in the state regularly make five times that of the "state's lawyer," however, we have reached a point when talented individuals are pushed out of governmental service because of the financial limitations it places on them during the prime of their careers.

The fact that the four offices with limited powers are elected and autonomous is a remnant of the post-Reconstruction fear of state government power being centralized. Yet many of the other remnants of that post-Reconstruction mindset have been eliminated from the state Constitution through a series of wise reforms. In 2014, the voters of Arkansas should be offered the ethics proposal that failed to obtain the necessary signatures this year as well as a constitutional amendment to streamline the executive branch through the elimination of these offices. The combination would be a one-two punch for the further modernization of our state government.

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