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The Risk of Rule by Appointment

April 26, 1998|Steve Scott | Steve Scott is managing editor of California Journal, an independent monthly magazine that covers state government and politics

SACRAMENTO — If recent statewide polls are any indication, former Northwest Airlines chief Al Checchi is having a tough time convincing voters he's an outsider whose business background gives him an advantage over mere politicians. Checchi's "real world experience" is rated no better than Rep. Jane Harman's congressional experience and only a little better than Lt. Gov. Gray Davis' government experience. But the colors of the outsider fit Checchi with tailored precision in one important respect. Unlike the Mike Huffingtons and Ross Perots of politics, whose campaigns feasted on anti-government bromides, Checchi has a relatively clear and detailed concept of how he wants to remodel state government: He wants to be California's CEO.

Central to this vision are the people whom he will pick to help him. Checchi often talks of 2,400 appointments available to the governor, through which the chief executive can put an imprimatur on the policy-making apparatus of state government. These appointees would, asserts Checchi, allow a governor to replace governance-as-usual with the enlightened model of corporate America. An entirely new culture of government could be born.

As appealing as it sounds on the surface, Checchi's dream team raises questions about the limitations--or lack thereof--on gubernatorial power. Is it really possible for Checchi, or any governor, to remake state government in his or her image? To the extent it is possible, where does the branch of government closest to the people--the Legislature--fit in? Does rule by appointment promote or circumvent representative government?

In the past three decades, and especially in seven-plus years of Gov. Pete Wilson, the power of the governorship has expanded dramatically. A governor's primary weapon used to be the power of persuasion and the line-item veto. Today, a strong chief executive can extend his influence into every county and school district in the state. A key component of this influence is the governor's appointive power. Checchi's 2,400 number low-balls it somewhat: According to Wilson's office, there are about 3,500 people at various levels of state government who are appointed by the governor or by his department directors.

By all accounts, the most influential of these are the 500 or so officials directly appointed by the governor. These include agency and department directors, their immediate subordinates, communications officers, budget analysts and the roughly 100 people who work directly in the governor's office. Another 300 or so appointees are made by agency and departmental directors themselves. These appointments are the "top management" who give about 270,000 civil-service employees their orders. Through these appointments alone, a governor can, in theory, control the day-to-day workings of every department.

In addition to paid appointments, a governor also is empowered to fill up to 2,600 vacancies on some 375 different boards, commissions, committees and task forces. A lot of these gubernatorial appointments wind up in the hands of friends, business associates, former staffers, campaign supporters and even former legislators. These mostly unpaid appointments range in relative importance from county fair boards to the UC Board of Regents.

Since the terms of appointees rarely overlap that of the governor, it generally takes a few years before a new governor can sweep aside previous appointees and put his own stamp on the boards. But once the new appointees are in place, a governor can have a strong impact on some of that board's decisions. The best recent example of this was the UC regents decision to eliminate all affirmative action programs. The effort was led by Wilson appointee Ward Connerly, and individuals appointed or reappointed by Wilson formed the voting bloc that allowed the governor to cast the deciding vote.

The most important, and visible, check on any governor's power of appointment is the Legislature. In addition to passing all the laws and enacting the state budget, the Legislature, specifically the state Senate, has a direct influence in the appointment process by virtue of its confirmation power over some 750 different gubernatorial appointments. Yet, the Legislature's effectiveness as a counterweight to executive power is dribbling away with each passing year. The reason: term limits.

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