When the governor crosses the line

Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Gov. Asa Hutchinson
By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

If Asa Hutchinson is in Texarkana, Ark., he’s governor. If he crosses over into Texarkana, Tex., Tim Griffin, the lieutenant governor, becomes governor. If Griffin is also out of state, he isn’t the governor either, though he’s still lieutenant governor. In that case, Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, a legislator from Beebe, is governor – assuming he also hasn’t left the state.

Got it?

Under the Arkansas Constitution, the governor relinquishes his powers to the lieutenant governor whenever he’s out of state. But that could change. Issue 2 on the November ballot would allow governors to maintain their powers wherever they are.

Legislators placed the proposal on the ballot because this is the 21st century, and governors can maintain contact with home much more easily than in 1914, when voters created the position of lieutenant governor and assigned its duties.

Moreover, the governor has become, in addition to being chief executive, a traveling face-of-the-state and occasional globe-trotting salesman. For example, in the past 12 months Hutchinson has flown to China to help secure a $1 billion paper mill in Arkadelphia, and to Europe to attend an air show, meet with aerospace-related business prospects, and open the state’s European office. He’s going back to China in October. He was in Austin, Texas, for the Texas Tribune Festival Sept. 24.

The system works fine most of the time because Hutchinson and Griffin, like most governors and lieutenant governors, get along well, are members of the same party and know their roles.

But there have been times when things didn’t work so smoothly. When Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, was at a National Governors Association meeting in 2013, his Republican lieutenant governor, Mark Darr, signed a gun bill Beebe did not intend to sign, though Beebe planned to let it become law unsigned. In 1993, when Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was out of state and the lieutenant governor’s office was vacant, Senate President Pro Tempore Jerry Jewell used his temporary powers to set free a convicted murderer and another convicted felon and pardon two men on parole. In 1987, Senate President Pro Tempore Nick Wilson fired Gov. Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, Betsey Wright, and vetoed some bills. Clinton rehired Wright when he returned. Wilson eventually went to prison, for other reasons.

This is the second time in 14 years Arkansas voters have had the chance to make this change. They rejected a similar proposal in 2002.

The arguments against? Even in the 21st century, there could be times when a governor might be out of state and inaccessible. On Sept. 11, 2001, Gov. Mike Huckabee was in Kentucky and could not return by air, and Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller could act with authority on that terrible day because he legally was the governor. Plus, maybe it’s a good thing that the Constitution reminds the governor not to be too much of a globe-trotting salesman.

One other thing about Issue 2 is that it would add feminine pronouns to that part of the Constitution. Section 4 of Amendment 6, which would be amended, refers only to “his” and “he.” The assumption in 1914 was that the governor would be a male, which makes sense because women were six years away from having the right to vote.

I worked in the lieutenant governor’s office from 2003-06, and I can tell you that we don’t really need the position as it currently exists. Its only constitutional duties are to preside over the Senate and to serve as governor if the elected governor is out of state, dies or is incapacitated. No well-run business would have a “lieutenant CEO” with similar non-duties, a salary and staff.

So I will vote yes. The governor should still be fully governor when he or she leaves the state, just as when the president leaves the country, the vice president doesn’t take over the job.

But it’s not the reform that’s needed. What should happen is that the governor and lieutenant governor run together on the same party ticket, like the president and vice president, and work together as a team after elected. That way, Rockefeller could have managed the situation with plenty of authority as Huckabee’s lieutenant governor on Sept. 11, but Jewell wouldn’t have been able to let the convicted murderer out of prison.

At least Issue 2 will let the governor be governor whenever he crosses the line.

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