Do We Need a Controller?

The legal dispute between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Controller John Chiang over whether the governor can temporarily reduce state workers’ salaries to minimum wage obscures a more important question: does California need an independently elected controller in the first place?

The answer here is: no.

California is a famously difficult state to govern. Dividing executive power between a governor and a host of other elected officials -- the lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction, insurance commissioner, secretary of state, and controller -- makes things even more difficult.

The central problem is accountability. California's system is dysfunctional and undemocratic because it is so hard to figure out who is responsible -- and thus whom to hold accountable -- when things go wrong. If the state runs out of cash later this year, is that the fault of the governor? The controller, who signs checks? The treasurer, who sells state bonds and manages state finances?

No, it would be better if California got rid of these elected offices. The lieutenant governorship is an irrelevant sinecure and should be completely eliminated. Five of the other offices -- a.g., treasurer, superintendent, insurance commissioner and yes, controller -- involve ministerial functions and should be appointed positions. The secretary of state's office, which oversees elections, is the only office that should remain -- and even then, it might well be wise to make that a non-partisan position.

The counter-argument for keeping a position like the controller independently elected is that such a position provides a check on the governor's power in a matter like the minimum wage. But the value of such a check is minimal compared to the advantages of having clear, accountable authority in the executive branch. Among these advantages is the reduction of long-running, costly legal disputes between members of the same branch of government.



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