Perdue seeks a shake-up of state government

AJC Exclusive: Proposal would make 4 offices appointed, rather than elected

Perdue’s plan, which would require approval of voters in November, would allow future governors to appoint the state’s insurance, labor and agriculture commissioners, as well as the state school superintendent.

Sen. Bill Heath (R-Bremen) is gathering support for the measure in the Senate, and Republicans in the House are promoting the plan there as well. It will take a two-thirds vote of both chambers for the question to be put to voters this fall.

“While I believe in representative state government, I think there are opportunities here to change how the state operates and create some efficiencies in government and have a team that’s together,” Heath said.

Georgia is one of only five states that elect a labor commissioner and one of only nine states to elect its agriculture commissioner. Twelve other states elect an insurance commissioner and 14 vote for state school superintendent.

“Many states have moved towards a cabinet form of government so that agency heads can focus on policy outcomes and not worry about the next election cycle,” Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said Thursday.

It’s too soon to know how the governor’s plan will be received. But it has the backing of at least one key lawmaker.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons Island) said he has supported the concept for years.

“Most voters, when they go into the booth, know very little about the candidates,” Keen said. “I’ve always thought it would be a more efficient form of government to have them appointed and accountable to the governor and the Legislature who are elected by the people.”

Under the proposal, the governor elected in 2014 would be the first to appoint people to those positions. Each appointment would have to be confirmed by the Senate.

Keen said efficiency is just one reason to support the concept.

“The other part of it, these positions regulate key components of commerce,” Keen said. “I think it’s better that someone who is not campaigning be in these positions than someone who is.”

Heath and Keen also said that the most qualified candidate for the job is not always the candidate who gets elected.

“Those offices are offices that require or deserve expertise,” Heath said. “In the election process it’s not always the most qualified person who wins the election.”

The four agencies whose chiefs would be appointed by the governor under the plan have nearly 6,000 positions and budgets totaling more than $7.5 billion.

Rep. Melvin Everson (R-Snellville), who is running this year for labor commissioner, supports the idea.

“I’ve always felt this position should be appointed by the governor,” he said. “It will save taxpayers of Georgia money.”

Governors in other states have in recent years taken steps toward similar changes. Some have run into resistance. Florida voters in 1998 changed their constitution to make the secretary of state and insurance commissioner appointed rather than elected. In South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford has for years tried unsuccessfully to persuade fellow Republicans in the Legislature to allow voters to decide whether a handful of elected officers should instead be appointed.

In Michigan, Gov. Jennifer Granholm faced fierce opposition over her plan to combine several agencies and remove governing commissions’ ability to appoint heads of others. A major effort that will examine all facets of government in the state of Washington, to include possible restructuring of agencies, is just getting under way.

In California, the sitting insurance commissioner, who is now running for governor, said last month his position should be appointed rather than elected.

Research into whether this kind of restructuring saves states money or increases efficiency is limited. In 2003, the Council of State Governments reported “merely shifting organizational boxes does not guarantee savings” and warned that restructuring can at times lead to shifting of costs rather than savings.

Critics of the idea in other states have said moving state officials from elected to appointed positions can open the door to increased patronage and cronyism. In some states, opposition to these types of proposals stems from a tug of war between legislators and governors. That was particularly true in South Carolina, where Sanford and top lawmakers have clashed for years.

But in Georgia, Keen said, that’s not a problem because the General Assembly has no role in those agencies except for one: deciding how much money each gets.

“It’s not like we’re taking away the power of the General Assembly,” Keen said. “It’s not a shift in power.”

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