There’s been a lot of talk these past few weeks about whether Arkansas ought to get rid of its current lieutenant governor, and probably not enough talk about getting rid of the office itself.
The current lieutenant governor, Mark Darr, on Tuesday announced plans to stay in office despite calls for him to resign. He has agreed to pay an $11,000 fine as a result of violations he committed in the use of campaign and state funds. He says his record keeping was sloppy but that he did not willfully do anything wrong. That explanation isn’t satisfying everyone. There’s talk of impeachment.
I worked three years in the lieutenant governor’s office from 2003-06. My boss back then, Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller, was a good man and dedicated public servant. But the office itself was, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president, John Nance Garner, described his own office, “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Rockefeller himself would describe it as state government’s spare tire: kept in the dark, pumped up and hopefully never used. The line always got a laugh.
Constitutionally, the office’s only duties are to serve as governor if the governor is out of state, dies, leaves office somehow or is incapacitated, and to preside over the Senate when it is in session.
None of those duties are necessary. Another public official could ascend to governor if something happens to the elected one, as is the case in some other states. The job of presiding over the Senate is largely ceremonial.
Moreover, in an age of instant communication, the governor’s powers shouldn’t be passed to another official simply because he or she crosses the border. Under Arkansas’ 1874 Constitution, if Gov. Beebe is in Texarkana, Ark., he’s still in charge, but if he crosses State Line Avenue into Texas, someone else, legally, can call out the National Guard. Even though that wouldn’t happen, the fact that it could is not just outdated, it’s dumb.
If Darr were to leave this office vacant, it would make no difference to the average Arkansan except that the state would save the money spent on his salary – unless Beebe filled the seat with a special election, which would be much more expensive.
What to do with state government’s spare tire? There are several options.
Number one, abolish it. Let the governor run free like the wind from state to state without worrying what the lieutenant governor will do while he’s away. This option seems unlikely, in part because too many legislators want to run for lieutenant governor. It’s a political steppingstone with a paid staff.
Number two, make it more of a real job. Just because the constitution lists only two duties doesn’t mean more can’t be added by statute or practice. Make the lieutenant governor the head of the Department of Parks and Tourism or the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, for examples, so he or she can become an ambassador for Arkansas. The advantage to this option: No constitutional amendment required.
Number three, elect the governor and the lieutenant governor on the same ticket so that they are running mates during the election and then can work as a team once in office.
Because the two positions currently are elected separately, there’s no reason for their occupants to have a working relationship – which might be useful if the lieutenant governor served as a check and balance on the governor, but that really doesn’t happen. Beebe has been close to neither of his two lieutenant governors; Darr, in fact, is a member of the other party. If the two offices were “yoked,” the lieutenant governor could fulfill ceremonial duties and help the governor pass a legislative agenda. And if something were to happen to the elected governor, the lieutenant governor would be prepared to ascend to the office immediately.
Wouldn’t that be better than paying an official and his staff to do little but stay pumped up and in the dark?
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.