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Omdahl: A bright spot in a dismal election

By Staff | Oct 28, 2016

Even in the face of disaster and ruin, we comfort ourselves with “it could be worse.” In this strange election year, most of us have a hard time thinking up something that could be worse.

However, I am finding a bright spot because I have always been in favor of neatening up state government. This year, a fellow believer has arrived.

State Senator Tim Mathern (D-Fargo) is running for state treasurer on the single plank of eliminating the office he is seeking. He’s my kind of candidate because he is talking about taking a step toward making state government more efficient and rational.

I have had a special interest in abolishing the office of state treasurer since Ralph Dewing, the state’s first fiscal officer, pointed out in the 1960s that our state didn’t need a state treasurer because we had the Bank of North Dakota.

With the drop in oil tax revenue and the possible election of a business-minded governor, perhaps the Legislature will be pushed into taking another look at the number of elected fiefdoms in the Capitol. North Dakota has twice as many elected officials as the average state.

Even abolishing the lesser office of state treasurer would be a Herculean task in a state that prizes massive participation. We voted on the abolition of the office of state treasurer in 1984 and 2000 but the people wouldn’t buy it. Maybe an empty cash drawer will help change their minds.

The office of state treasurer is not a big bureaucracy; abolition would not balance the state budget. The only argument for keeping the office is that 36 other states have a state treasurer so we also should have one

But abolition is in the wind. Texas abolished the office in 1996 and Minnesota followed in 1998. Both states are thriving without this extraneous office.

One of the basic tenets of democratic government is that we elect only those folks who have policymaking authority; we appoint those who perform purely ministerial duties. The treasurer is a ministerial person who does not make policy.

In a democracy, election requires accountability. While elected officials claim that election makes them accountable, this is fundamentally not true.

Most voters in North Dakota do not even know who holds the title of state treasurer and even fewer know anything about the duties of the office. And if we don’t know their names or their duties, how do we know whether or not they are doing a good job?

What is true about the treasurer is also true about most of our elected state officials. Very few citizens could name more than three elected officials in the lesser offices, let alone know their duties well enough to measure their performance against those duties.

The Legislature recognized the limitations of voters when they proposed to divide our long list of elective officers between two elections on the theory that fewer candidates would receive closer scrutiny. I doubt that it has helped.

Without direct accountability of officeholders, we have to depend on the political parties to nominate responsible candidates, if they nominate candidates at all e.g. North Dakota Democrats.

On Nov. 8, we will be voting on the lesser offices of public service commissioner, insurance commissioner, treasurer, an auditor and superintendent of public instruction. Who can name them or their opponents?

Now I am a realist with a sneaking suspicion that Senator Mathern will not get elected but I sure appreciate him raising an issue that warrants a third look as we struggle into the 21st century.

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.

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