The lieutenant governor: Change it, or get rid of it

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

For more than three years from 2003-06, your tax dollars were not spent very efficiently, and I was a beneficiary.

I was the communications director in the lieutenant governor’s office. My boss, Lt. Governor Win Rockefeller, was a very good man, but the lieutenant governorship, at least the way it is designed in Arkansas, is not a useful office.

Nothing occurs there that could not be done somewhere else. Under the Arkansas Constitution, the lieutenant governor presides over the Senate when it is in session (a ceremonial job) and serves as governor when the governor is out of state (an unnecessary responsibility in the 21st century). The other major duty, the one that really matters, is to serve as governor if the governor does not finish his or her term. Two of the past four lieutenant governors have been called upon to do that.

The office, when filled, consumes about $400,000 a year in order to employ state government’s backup quarterback and his or her staff. Currently, no one even occupies the office. With the resignation of former Lt. Governor Mark Darr, the doors have been locked and the lights off for months. As Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, explained in an interview, “We’ve got an office that in all intents and purposes doesn’t exist right now, and there’s no clamor about some services that are not being met.”

Ingram and Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, are proposing abolishing the office and making the attorney general next in line to be governor. This would require a constitutional amendment approved by the voters. Were it to pass, Arkansas would join five other states that don’t have a lieutenant governor.

The proposal has been far from universally embraced. There’s a natural resistance to changing the Constitution, which is a good thing. Plus, some legislators might want to be lieutenant governor someday and are reluctant to vote to get rid of the office. It’s hard to cut the backup quarterback when you hope to be one someday.

There’s some concern about making the attorney general next in line, which no state currently does, because doing so limits that opportunity to lawyers only.

But it not the attorney general, then who? The next highest statewide position after attorney general is the secretary of state, a job that deals primarily with running elections and maintaining the Capitol – not really governor-type duties. Still, that position ascends to governor in three states that have no lieutenant governor – Arizona, Oregon and Wyoming. In New Jersey, the lieutenant governor and the secretary of state are the same officeholder. Legislators deal with many of the same issues as the governor, so the speaker of the House or the Senate president pro tempore would make sense. The objection is that neither are elected by voters statewide, but that hasn’t stopped Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee and West Virginia from making the leader of the Senate their next in line. In fact, Tennessee and West Virginia give their Senate leaders the title of “lieutenant governor.”

We could just make the lieutenant governor a real job. At one time, Arkansas’ lieutenant governor exercised real power in the Senate by appointing committees and committee chairs. There’s no way legislators are giving up those powers now, but perhaps the lieutenant governor could be made the head of a state agency or a member of some important commissions.

Or, the governor and the lieutenant governor could be yoked together on one ticket, like the president and the vice president are, instead of running separately as occurs now. That way the governor and lieutenant governor could be a team, maybe even share staff. That would be the opposite of what the state had before Darr resigned: a Democratic governor and a Republican lieutenant governor who couldn’t work together and didn’t even like each other.

Changing anything in government is hard, particularly when there’s no deadline forcing it to happen. We don’t have a crisis. We have an office that doesn’t do much when it has an occupant and currently doesn’t even have that. Ideally, Arkansas could either make it useful or just get rid of it.

Or we could just leave things as they are. It’s only $400,000 a year. Of your money.

Here’s a KARK-TV report about this subject.

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