Abolish Rhode Island’s General Officers

Bundesratsfoto_2019

Swiss Federal Council (copyright Swiss Federal Assembly; retrieved from Wikimedia Commons)

In Rhode Island, the Governor is the most powerful part of the executive branch; they get to appoint people to state boards (thanks to separation of powers), they select department heads, they propose the budget. We also have the Attorney General to prosecute crime and investigate wrong-doing in government, the Secretary of State to deal with some aspects of business and elections, the General Treasurer to watch over our funds, and the Lieutenant Governor to wait around for the Governor to leave office early (last achieved in 1950 – though to be fair, until 2000 2002, they served as presiding officer of the Senate).

So if you’re keeping score, we have one really important office, three less important offices akin to cabinet positions, and one almost unneeded office. All are elected separately in first-past-the-post elections. In the last election, the Republican Party was unable to field a candidate to contest the attorney general’s position and the Moderate Party only contested the governorship (they failed to achieve 5% of the vote and were thus terminated as a recognized political party) and the lieutenant governorship.

Meanwhile, calls for the abolition of Lieutenant Governor have empowered multiple political campaigns. But what if we applied that same scrutiny to other executive officers? Do the Secretary of State, Attorney General, and General Treasurer also need to be distinct offices elected separately from the chief executive?

You might balk at this, as it seems to suggest concentrating all power in the hands of the governor. But I’m actually about to suggest we expand the number of officers and decentralize power away from the governor.

A Collegial Executive

My proposal would be to distribute most of the governor’s authority to other general officers, and form a collegial executive. Instead of five general officers with one overseeing the functions of government, we would instead elect seven with each overseeing some functions of government. Collectively, they would form a council with the power to approve laws.

Their areas of responsibility (as defined by currently existing departments and boards) would be as follows:

  • Administration
    • Executive department (might be reduced)
    • Department of state
    • Department of administration
  • Justice
    • Department of the attorney general
    • Department of public safety
    • Department of corrections
  • Treasury (likely presiding officer)
    • Treasury department
    • Department of business regulation
    • Department of revenue
  • Human Services
    • Department of children, youth and families
    • Department of elderly affairs
    • Department of human services
  • Education and Labor
    • Department of elementary and secondary education
    • Board of governors for higher education
    • Department of labor and training
  • Environment, Energy and Transportation
    • Department of environmental management
    • Public utilities commission
    • Department of transportation
  • Health
    • Department of health
    • Department of behavioral healthcare, developmental disabilities and hospitals

So, you might be balking at this. When has this ever been tried? This is what’s known a directorial system, most famously used during the post-Terror period of the French Revolution but today used in Switzerland (the French directory was actually based on Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary-era constitution – the first American constitution to offer voting rights regardless of property).

How to Elect a Collegial Executive

My unique spin on this would be to elect all seven members in a single election using single transferable vote (STV), a process by which candidates can be ranked and elected as they pass a vote threshold, with excess votes transferred to other candidates. It’s especially useful when electing multiple candidates from a single constituency (in this case, Rhode Island). STV is used in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Malta, and Australia. It’s also used up the road in Cambridge, Mass.

STV’s advantage is that it allows candidates to run under their own names, much like our existing system. If you’ve ever voted, you’ll notice you vote for a candidate who is either affiliated with a political party, or independent. We don’t actually vote for parties (especially since the abolition of straight-ticket voting in RI). The person’s name comes first.

STV also allows parties to win seats mostly proportional to their votes. So with seven seats, we might expect something like a 4-3 or 5-2 Democratic-Republican split, or perhaps a 4-2-1 Democratic-Republican-Independent/3rd Party split.

So STV strikes the balance between the individualistic American system of elections, and a recognition that political parties are the main organizing fact in political life. A ballot for the 2018 election might have looked like this:

RI STV voting

 

Once elected, members of the executive now need to elect a presiding officer and a voting majority. This majority gets first pick of the seats and distributes them to each member. The remaining seats are distributed and filled by the next largest party not part of the majority. That means ceding policy and power to the opposition no matter what. Parties are not shut out of power simply because they’re in the minority.

It also makes department heads directly responsible to the people. Imagine voters didn’t like what Governor Raimondo has been doing with the human services agencies. Voters really didn’t have much ability to register disapproval with that last election; the other options were Allan Fung, who wanted cuts to human services, or no-hope third party and independent candidates (most of whom also wanted to slash human services). Under the collegial executive, voters might simply rank the sitting council member in charge of human services lower; possibly not reelecting that person, but at the very least suggesting to the collegial executive that, hey, maybe don’t give this person human services again.

Consensus and Pitfalls

The goal is to force Rhode Island towards a consensus rather than a majoritarian system. In a majoritarian system the party with the majority (or often just most) of the votes win, meaning they have little incentive to work with other factions or parties. If you look at the office of governor, for instance, it’s possible to elect a governor with just 41% or 36% of the vote. Those elected with such a small percent can govern just the same as someone who wins 80% or 90% of the vote. A consensus system works so that winning the most votes is usually not enough to run a government. There aren’t so much “losers” and “winners” as there are big and small winners. This forces parties to work together to cobble together working majorities.

So how would the budget process work? Well, I think it would be tricky, but I’d have each council member submit a proposed budget for their departments to the council, at which point a majority of the council could alter any other member’s budget, and then submit that proposal to the legislature which would then go about its regular process of submitting its own budget, and then that would be sent back to the council for ratification by the council majority. I might even suggest giving the council majority a line-item veto power as well.

What if a councilor is a real jerk and slashed all the funding for their departments only to have it restored and now refuses to do anything with their cash? Well, I think I would ultimately hand impeachment authority to the legislature (probably a supermajority), but I could also see a provision whereby the majority or a supermajority of the council must submit a recommendation for impeachment and removal to the legislature first (so a legislature can’t just go about impeaching a council that’s filled with opposing partisans). Crucially, I would suggest mandating that the impeached council member must be replaced by someone from the same party they belonged to (or in the case of an independent, by the next highest vote recipient among independent candidates).

 

Is this system necessarily better than what we have now? I’d argue yes. I think locking Democrats out of the chief executive for nearly 20 years was bad. I think locking both parties out of the chief executive for the opening of Chafee’s term was bad. And I think the weakness of the Republican Party now is bad. I don’t think it wouldn’t come with its own problems, but I think those problems are vastly preferable to those we have now. It also makes all parties have a hand in what happens in the state, which means we’re all more collectively responsible for the policies that come out of the State House.

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