Yes, Jeremy Alford, We Do Need A State Treasurer, But…

…we need to give the Treasurer a real job to do.

Alford has a piece up today at the Baton Rouge Business Report on this fall’s election to replace John Kennedy as Louisiana’s Treasurer, and he notes that the existence of the job itself isn’t on the ballot.

One of the higher-profile candidates should be campaigning on the promise that they’ll eliminate the elected job. It would certainly capture the attention of the electorate, most of which is completely unaware that an election cycle has just gotten underway. It would also generate a debate about streamlining a corner of government that has gone overlooked for too long.

There’s already a readymade, hire-me-to-fire-me campaign template to follow. In 1999, Suzanne Haik Terrell of New Orleans won her bid for election commissioner by, in part, vowing to bury the job. During her term she did just that and oversaw the merging of her department with the Secretary of State’s Office.

Baton Rouge attorney E. Eric Guirard also had a “hire-me-to-fire-me” platform in 1995 when he ran for lieutenant governor. At times the effort was as humorous as the TV commercials Guirard produces for his law practice. “If the governor dies, I’ll resign,” he told The Shreveport Times 22 years ago. “You don’t want me as your governor.”

Voters viewed Guirard’s PR blitz as more of a sideshow, worth about 5% of the total electorate in the 1995 primary. Terrell and her messaging, meanwhile, managed to topple a well-known politico in a runoff four years later with 59% of the vote.

So a serious effort that avoids gimmicks could gain traction this cycle. There’s no denying that voters are ready to hear something different. Platitudes may even be toxic in this red state that President Donald Trump won. More importantly, voters are also well aware that government is a work in progress.

What follows is a serious discussion of the Treasurer’s job…

This conversation should start with an understanding of what exactly the state treasurer does. First and foremost, the treasurer is Louisiana’s official banker and accountant. Keeping records of how much state money is received and spent; managing debt and investments; and advising and serving on the Bond Commission are among the duties the treasurer is charged with upon being elected.

It’s a serious job. But do voters really need to be involved in electing such a figurehead? There are currently 16 states that don’t even have elected treasurers. In 12 of those states the position is appointed and in four of them the Legislature selects a treasurer.

The dismantling operation here wouldn’t be nearly as complicated as some believe. The treasurer’s office in Louisiana could easily be merged with the Division of Administration, which is the lead budget agency in the state. It could also be swallowed up by the Revenue Department, which already plays a critical role in revenue collections and projections.

Alford does allow that Louisiana could opt for a different direction than dumping the Treasurer’s job description into the Division of Administration; namely, that it could be expanded.

And that’s what ought to be done.

For example, the Treasurer isn’t a member of the Revenue Estimating Conference, which consists of the Governor, Senate President and House Speaker, or their designates, and the state’s economist in charge of producing the revenue projections – that would be Jim Richardson, a professor at LSU. And the REC has been famously wrong some 15 times in the past nine years in estimating the state’s take in taxes. If that’s not a record of performance which absolutely screams out in favor of some major changes, what is? Don’t just add the Treasurer to the REC; have him chair the thing.

And why would you have a state Treasurer and not put him in charge of the Department of Revenue? He’s the state’s fiscal officer, after all, and his department is already in charge of dispensing unclaimed property, much of that consisting of tax returns owed to people. Let him run the revenue department, particularly if you’re going to have him running the REC, and maybe now you’ll actually have someone who can put in an informed opinion on what tax revenues the state will in fact take in.

Which, by the way, the Treasurer already has, because he’s the one counting the tax dollars as they do come in and he can see the trends.

We talk all the time about how powerful Louisiana’s governor is, and how his role is nearly dictatorial in Louisiana compared to other states. How’s that working out for us? We’re near the bottom in everything, and nobody can agree on who in the state’s history has actually been a good governor. Nearly all of them leave office deeply unpopular with the people. And we know the state’s budget process is irretrievably broken at this point, in large measure, legislators will tell you, because nobody really knows how much money will come in every year.

There was merit in Guirard’s argument about the Lieutenant Governor. There is none in Alford’s argument about the Treasurer. We need one, and we need him to be good at it, and we need to give him some responsibility siphoned away from the governor – since putting all our eggs in the basket on the front stoop of the governor’s mansion has resulted in having those eggs thrown back in our faces for a century.

Let’s try something new. Let’s try separation of powers for a change.

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