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Penobscot County Lawmaker Proposes Direct Election of Maine 'Constitutional Officers'

AUGUSTA, Maine - For decades, the Maine Legislature has considered - and rejected - attempts to change the way certain key positions in state government are filled - specifically, the attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer.

Those jobs are currently filled by the Legislature, which votes on the nominees, giving the real choice to the majority party in control. Maine is the only state that relies on such a system. And one lawmaker says it's time for a change.

Some states allow the people to directly elect one or more of their so-called "constitutional officers." Others let the legislature make an appointment, while others allow the state's governor to choose. In Tennessee, the state Supreme Court decides who the attorney general will be.

Maine is the only state that gives the Legislature the authority to select its attorney general, treasurer, and secretary of state - a process that Republican Sen. Andre Cushing says nearly always guarantee that the political party in power at the time will decide who's in and who's out.

"The current office holders only have to convince half of the people in the Legislature to support them - that's a pretty small audience," Cushing says.

Cushing has submitted a bill calling for the direct election of all three constitutional officers. He is proposing a four-year term for the attorney general that would last during the same term as a newly-elected governor. The other two positions would be up for election every two years. But Cushing says he could be convinced to extend those to four-year positions as well.

The problem with the current process, Cushing says, is that it relies too heavily on politics and not enough on qualifications. "The current campaigning that goes on - either goes on within what's considered the majority party ranks or within the people you think you need in order to get elected - there's not a true transparency to that process, in my opinion," Cushing says.

Over the last 20 years, similar efforts to change the system have died in committee, as the majority parties have used their positions to reward loyal candidates who may have failed in a bid for statewide office. But now, even some Democrats are starting to look at the potential positives of a new system, such as boosting name recognition of party candidates who may start off as attorney general and then move on to higher office.

Former Democratic Party Vice Chair Janet Mills is Maine's current attorney general. Mills says she doesn't have an opinion on how the state should proceed, but she does have some thoughts on how any campaigns for attorney general should be regulated.

"I would not want to see people running for the chief law enforcement office in the state, turning around asking for money from institutions and individuals, in state and out of state, who might then be subject to an investigation the next day," Mills says. "You don't know what's going to come before you when you get elected, you don't know what sub-conscious quid-pro-quo that might be out there. And that's a very dangerous thing."

"Seriously, can you imagine the Koch Brothers coming in here and trying to influence the outcome of an attorney general's election," says Rep. Jeff Evagelos.

Evangelos is an independent lawmaker from Friendship, who says he actually views the current legislative election of constitutional officers as a process that's less easily manipulated by outside forces

Republican Rep. Beth Turner, of Burlington, who serves alongside Evangelos on the Legislature's State and Local Government Committee, says she is intrigued by Cushing's bill.

"Anytime you can keep government closer to the people, I really want to look at that," Turner says.

Cushing's legislation calling for the direct election of constitutional officers comes in the form of a constitutional amendment, which requires support of two-thirds of the Legislature. and approval by voters at the ballot box.