By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
It may be that the voters elected not so much a lieutenant governor as a vice president of Arkansas.
By that I mean that Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin looks like he might fulfill the same role filled by some vice presidents – Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden – as a trusted and valued member of the administration, not a separate and often forgotten officeholder.
Griffin, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, sees his most important role as serving as Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s junior officer – advocating for the governor’s legislation, making speeches on his behalf, etc. He even said in a phone interview Wednesday that he has been “very active with the governor recommending personnel.”
He will try to pass his own stuff, as some previous lieutenant governors have done. The reason Arkansas has a lottery is because of Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. But, he said, his first priority will be helping Hutchinson with his agenda.
“I make a point of speaking with the governor or his chief of staff every single day,” Griffin said.
Under the Arkansas Constitution, unlike the president and vice president, the governor and lieutenant governor are completely separate offices elected on completely different parts of the ballot.
Governors and lieutenant governors don’t have to be members of the same party, they don’t have to work together – they don’t even have to like each other. I’m trying to think of the best word to describe the relationships Gov. Mike Beebe had with his lieutenant governors, Halter and Mark Darr. “Strained,” maybe? Before that, Gov. Mike Huckabee and Lt. Governor Win Rockefeller were personally friendly and in fact grew quite fond of each other in their latter days together – but their day-to-day paths did not cross that much. I worked for both of them at different times, by the way.
Constitutionally, the lieutenant governor is a weak office – so weak, in fact, that Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, and Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, have proposed an amendment to get rid of it. The lieutenant governor has only three constitutional duties: to serve as governor if the elected governor does not or cannot finish his or her term; to preside over the Senate when it is in session, which is a largely ceremonial responsibility; and to act as governor when the governor is traveling out of state, a duty so antiquated that even Griffin says it needs to go.
It’s rare indeed for an elected official to advocate for lessening his or her power, let alone take actions to make it happen. Griffin says he intends to push for getting rid of that provision.
“When the president of the United States leaves the United States and goes to China, he doesn’t give up being president of the United States,” he said.
Changing the provision will require a constitutional amendment, which is no sure thing. In fact, voters rejected the idea in 2002. But that was before smart phones, Facebook and Skype made the world so connected. We all know the governor is no more out of pocket in Branson or Dallas than he is in parts of Arkansas.
This also is noteworthy: Griffin has cut his staff in half. Darr had four full-time staff members, and Griffin will have two, plus interns. He said he plans to return the extra money back to the state and hopes to set an example for the rest of state government.
So basically, Arkansas has a lieutenant governor who wants to relinquish a not very useful constitutional power. However, he probably will exercise much more day-to-day influence than previous lieutenant governors because of his working relationship with the governor.
He made a pretty smart trade, don’t you think?