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N.D. has too many state officials

By Staff | Feb 19, 2010

Now that the public is riled up about big government, the climate is right for the Tea Partiers to start a crusade to abolish half of the elected state officials.

North Dakota leads the nation in elected officials with South Carolina the only state coming close. Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana elect only half as many officials and democracy still prospers.

North Dakota has so many elected officials that we have divided them into two contingents for election purposes, with some assigned to run in presidential years and some in nonpresidential years. In the upcoming November election, we will be filling the offices of secretary of state, attorney general, agriculture commissioner, tax commissioner and a public service commissioner.

In 2012, we will be electing the governor-lieutenant governor team, state auditor, state treasurer, commissioner of insurance and a public service commissioner.

The argument made for dividing the officials between two elections is also the best argument for eliminating half of them. With such a large cadre of politicians competing for public visibility, it was argued that it was impossible for the voters to become acquainted with the candidates. It is true that the average citizen doesn’t even know the names of the elected officials, let alone their qualifications or performance.

The majority of these offices could be better filled by thoughtful gubernatorial appointment since they are purely administrative positions with very limited policymaking authority. Of course, there is opposition to this idea. Whenever the abolition of elective offices is suggested, all of the officials – Republicans and Democrats alike – vehemently insist that the government would collapse without their positions being elective.

At the top of the list of offices for abolition should be the state treasurer. The public spotlight shifted to this office recently when the treasurer erroneously advised the Office of Management and Budget that $12 million had been transferred to the general fund. On the basis of this advice, OMB cleared the way for releasing $8.8 million for the library at Dickinson State contrary to state law. Because the treasurer is elected, there will be no accountability for this blunder.

While such an error by itself would not warrant abolition of the position, it does resurrect the question of whether or not the state needs a treasurer when it has the Bank of North Dakota and other agencies available to handle the duties of the treasurer. It also raises the question of accountability for all of the elected officials. (I have had my own kingdom as tax commissioner so I know whereof I speak.)

The abolition of state officials is not going to end up saving barrels of money. Work will still need to be done. However, fewer elected officials would result in more efficient staffing, greater accountability and better coordination. The existence of these semi-autonomous empires results in a waste of thousands of employee hours with coordinating meetings to keep everyone on the same page.

Shaking our fists at public meetings over the size of the national government may be more exciting than taking on realistic reform right here in North Dakota, but the odds of achieving something are much better here than in Washington.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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