Republicans, Democrats Introduce Constitutional Amendment to Eliminate State Treasurer’s Office

State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt, pictured in 2015, says nothing is off the table as she considers her office's budget. (TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO)

During the 2016 election cycle state Senator Tim Mathern, the Democratic candidate for Treasurer, built what little there was of his campaign around the idea of eliminating the Treasurer’s office.

Not many voters bought it. Mathern got less than 30 percent of the vote while Republican incumbent Kelly Schmidt earned a fourth term in office with nearly 63 percent. It’s worth remembering that constitutional amendments to end the Treasurer’s office have been put on the statewide ballot twice in the past and failed, obviously, each time.

Back in April, when Mathern first announced his initiative, Schmidt didn’t think it was a very good idea.

“I find it interesting that Senator Mathern has never submitted legislation to eliminate the office of State Treasurer during his legislative tenure prior to running for the position,” she told me.

She pointed out that this isn’t the first time there’s been a push to eliminate the office.

“It’s been on the ballot twice before my tenure to eliminate the office of state treasurer when a Democrat was in office, she told me,  “and the Democrats fought it.”

“This bill shows the public that the legislature is serious about right-sizing state government and creating ways for our state to use its resources as wisely and efficiently as possible,” Rep. Mike Nathe, a Bismarck Republican and prime sponsor of the legislation, said in a press release today.

She also defended her fiscal record as Treasurer. “Our operating budget has increased 1 percent in the last decade,” she said.

“This is the will of the people. This isn’t something a legislator can do. It would take a vote of the people,” she added. That’s true. Amending the state constitution to eliminate a statewide office would require a vote of the people, as all amendments to the North Dakota constitution do.

But today a bipartisan group of Republican and Democrat lawmakers have announced that they will promote legislation to put the treasurer’s office on the ballot again. There are actually two bills.

The first (PDF) is the actual amendment to the state constitution to phase the office out should voters approve it on the 2018 general election ballot. The second (PDF) tasks Legislative Management with exploring what legislation might be needed to transfer the duties of the Treasurer’s Office to other state agencies/departments.

“This bill shows the public that the legislature is serious about right-sizing state government and creating ways for our state to use its resources as wisely and efficiently as possible,” Rep. Mike Nathe, a Bismarck Republican and prime sponsor of the legislation, said in a press release today.

The co-sponsors are: Sen. Jessica Unruh (R-Beulah), Sen. Jonathan Casper (R-Fargo), Sen. Tim Mathern (D-Fargo), Rep. Jason Dockter (R-Bismarck), Rep. Mike Lefor (R-Dickinson), Rep. Mark Owens (R-Grand Forks), Rep. Dan Ruby (R-Minot), Rep. Louis Delmore (D-Grand Forks).

Also in the press release is an assurance that eliminating this office is not a reflection on Schmidt.

“This is not a reflection on the Treasurer or staff in that office, but rather recognition that we must not be complacent and must always strive to provide right-size government in North Dakota,” Unruh said. “Giving the people the opportunity to make a choice on this matter is a step in that direction.”

I’m not sure how I feel about this yet. On the get-rid-of-it side, lawmakers have a lot of cutting to do. Former governor Jack Dalrymple’s executive budget recommended eliminating 583.56 FTE positions in state government for the coming biennium. The Legislature and new Governor Doug Burgum have expressed an interest in even deeper cuts. The Treasurer’s office, while not large, would move lawmakers toward that goal.

Though, again, the office wouldn’t go away until after the 2018 election, so the utility of this initiative in addressing immediate fiscal issues is limited.

On the keep-it side, part of me wonders if we shouldn’t maybe be moving some functions of government into the Treasurer’s Office. I’m thinking of the abysmal job the state’s fiscal forecasters have done over the last couple of bienniums when their revenue projections have been off by billions. Who do we hold accountable for that?

Maybe if we move that function into the Treasurer’s Office we could hold that elected official accountable. I’ve always thought the Treasurer’s Office would be a good fit for new government transparency programs, such as spending databases and the like.

I’m not so sure it isn’t short sighted to do away with the Treasurer’s Office. Sure, the state needs to downsize – or “right size” is the euphemism everyone is using, I guess – but I think that goal could be accomplished by consolidating duties into the Treasurer’s Office instead of eliminating it.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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