A Kentucky Senate panel unanimously approved a bill last week proposing to amend the Kentucky Constitution to eliminate the office of state treasurer. The Republican-backed bill is not just another partisan maneuver however. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, expressed openness to the measure, saying of the treasurer's office "They don't do anything except sign checks."
Well, in fairness, the office does a little more than that. The Associated Press reports that the office last year issued 3.1 million paper checks for more than $8.2 billion in state disbursements. It manages roughly $27 billion in federal wire transfers each year and tracks various court-ordered withholdings and tax related filings for state employees.
The office also administers the state's unclaimed property fund, and to his credit the current treasurer, Todd Hollenbach, has aggressively managed that responsibility, returning $96.3 million to rightful beneficiaries since he took office in 2007. That compares to $4.8 million that was returned to rightful owners between 1984 and 1993, when the Kentucky Revenue Cabinet oversaw the fund.
But the argument in the legislature is not that the functions of the treasurer's office are not needed; rather, it is that there is no need for a separate constitutional office to oversee those functions. The Senate bill would instead make the treasurer's office an executive function managed by an appointee of the governor.
Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican from Taylor Mill, is the primary sponsor of the legislation. He says the measure would save taxpayers $1.3 million up front and an additional $750,000 a year once the office's duties are reassigned.
In truth, a similar argument can be made for eliminating the secretary of state's office, which likewise has largely ministerial duties that could easily be handled by a professional appointee. That's not in the cards this session however, as the current occupant of that office, Allison Lundergan Grimes, is the Democrats' choice to try to unseat incumbent U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Any effort to eliminate that office during this term would naturally look like a partisan effort to undermine her.
In practice, 36 states presently choose a treasurer in statewide elections. In most other states the governor handles the appointment.
With regard to the secretary of state, Alaska, Hawaii, and Utah function without the office. Only 35 states have an elected secretary of state and the rest select the position legislatively.
One key criticism of the idea of eliminating Kentucky's state treasurer is that in the event of a budget impasse, it's the responsibility of the treasurer to assure only legislatively authorized funds are spent. Some argue that transferring that oversight to an appointee of the governor would be putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. True to a point, but there are always the courts as a fallback.
We're not sure whether the current bill regarding the treasurer's office has a chance of making it to the ballot this time around. It's not the first time the idea has been brought up. But we're all for it. The dollars saved won't be huge in the grand scheme of things, but anything that succeeds in uncluttering the ballot and streamlining the operations of state government strikes us as a goal worth pursuing.