07/20/10: How many constitutional officers do we need?

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

SEVERAL of Norfolk’s constitutional officers have been in the news lately: the commonwealth’s attorney for his withdrawal from recent inquiries, the treasurer for the $13 million in delinquent real estate taxes and the commissioner of the revenue for questions surrounding her use of a city credit card. For the most part, though, these elected officials fall far below the radar of many citizens.

The city’s five constitutional officers — so named because their positions are described in the state Constitution — also include the sheriff and the clerk of Circuit Court. Today, more than 625 people across Virginia hold elected office as a constitutional officer. Court clerks are elected to eight-year terms while the rest are elected to four year terms.

Nearly every piece of history you’ll ever read about these offices traces them back to Thomas Jefferson, who believed that government works best when it is closest to the people and is directly responsible to them. I generally agree with Jefferson, but sometimes his beliefs don’t coincide with what we need now.

Jefferson probably never envisioned a political machine would control politics in Virginia for more than 40 years through the network of constitutional officers. But that’s exactly what happened during the reign of the Byrd Machine. Jefferson probably never envisioned most of the citizens served by these officers would never come into contact with them. Yet that is the case today.

And Jefferson probably never envisioned that funding for these offices would be the third largest local aid program in the state’s budget, behind education and the car tax reimbursement.

It is this last part that bothers me. At a time when nearly everyone’s finances are strained to the limit, we are maintaining offices that may very well be incorporated into the operations of the localities at a savings to us. Gov. Bob McDonnell’s reform commission is looking for ways to streamline government. Let me save him some time: Just take a look at the prior reports on this issue and implement them.

Since at least 1990, nearly every report has recommended looking into reforming the administration and funding of constitutional offices. The 2002 commission of then-Gov. Mark Warner, for example, recommended the state examine “ways of eliminating duplication of efforts between constitutional officers and local officials.” That recommendation, like many others, has not been acted upon.

On his way out of the door, Gov. Tim Kaine proposed, essentially, that the offices of the treasurer and commissioner of the revenue be eliminated. The law allows for it, with an appointed director of finance assuming these duties. Lobbying by the constitutional officers put a quick end to the proposal.

The citizens of a locality can, at least in theory, eliminate these two offices using the procedures set forth in the law. The bar is so high, though, that it virtually guarantees it will never happen.

In fact, since 1976, not a single case has occurred. I’m guessing many attempts are thwarted right out of the gate: the first requirement is that petitions containing the signatures equal to 20 percent of the votes cast in the last presidential election be gathered, and the signatures have to be gathered in 90 days. In Norfolk, that would mean about 18,000 signatures, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that it took petition organizers about a year to gather 8,000 signatures to force the recent recall election of the Portsmouth mayor.

A long time ago, a dear friend of mine, now deceased, ran for treasurer with an eye toward eliminating the position. I didn’t get it then. I ran for treasurer five years ago. I didn’t get it then, either.

I get it now. At a time when the localities and the state are facing fiscal strain, it is prudent that we consider ways to reduce the cost of government while not reducing the services it provides. A serious look at the consolidation of the offices of the commissioner of the revenue and the treasurer under a director of finance just makes sense. It’s also something with which Jefferson would likely agree.