Lieutenant Governors Fend Off Budget Axes

 

While their heads are safer than they would have been during the French Revolution, many of the nation's lieutenant governors are taking nicks and cuts from state lawmakers wielding budget axes.

The bleeding so far is not excessive in most states the cuts are in line with cuts to the rest of state government. But in two states, Kentucky and Virginia, lawmakers slashed the money flowing to their number two executives far more deeply than other areas of government. And in Wisconsin, a state representative has proposed shutting down the lieutenant governor's office completely as a way to save money.

Although the responsibilities of lieutenant governors differ greatly from state to state, succession is the single most important role they play. "That is their chief end. It's the one thing they all have in common," said Julia Hurst, director of the National Association of Lieutenant Governors (NALG).

Eight states currently have no lieutenant governor Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming. In these states, succession of an incapacitated governor is handled by either the secretary of state or the president of the state Senate.

The sponsor of the Wisconsin proposal, state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (D), said eliminating the lieutenant governor's office would be an effective cost-saving measure. "I have been proposing this since 1995. But there are no specific duties assigned to the position, and in an era of downsizing I think we could do without. I see this as a cost-saving move," Wasserman said to the Capital Times (Madison, Wis.).

Under Wasserman's proposal, the main responsibility of the lieutenant governor succession to the governorship should the current office holder become incapacitated would be shifted to the speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly. To make clear that this is not an attack on the current officeholder, Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton (D), Wasserman said the proposal should take effect after she leaves office.

A recent article in Governing magazine likened lieutenant governors to the character Kramer in the TV sitcom "Seinfeld," claiming that they "have nice digs and more than enough money to live on, but nobody is quite sure what they do for a living. All in all, that's a good spot to be in at least until state budgets get tight."

Rhode Island Lt. Gov. Charles J. Fogarty (D) and Montana Lt. Gov. Karl Ochs (R) protested Governing's characterization, writing in a letter to the magazine's editor that "the office is not just 'one heartbeat away from the governor's office,' it is also a current and growing power in its own right."

A tight budget is the rationale Kentucky Republicans used to justify eliminating Lt. Gov. Steve Henry's (D) mansion, security detail and chef. Henry claimed the cuts were politically motivated.

Senate Republicans also tried and failed to take away Henry's car and office staff, which would have made him an officeholder with no office. As it is, Henry has been forced to move his office from the lieutenant governor's mansion into the basement of the Capitol building. Bill Riggs, Henry's chief of staff, said the cuts total $900,000, roughly 75 percent of the lieutenant governor's budget.

Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has watched the Republican-controlled legislature reduce his budget by 40 percent since he assumed office in January 2002. The cuts are forcing Kaine to trade his penthouse office space for something more affordable. Kaine, who is expected to run for governor in 2005, accused Republicans of playing politics with the funding for his office.

Georgia's lieutenant governor is facing a changing job description in addition to budget cuts.

After Republicans took over the Georgia Senate in November 2002, they stripped Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor (D) of much of his power to appoint committee chairs, rendering him nearly powerless. Under the Georgia Constitution, the lieutenant governor presides over Senate debates, but what that looks like in reality depends greatly on the whims of the Senate. Taylor is expected to run for governor in 2006.

Despite the budgets cuts and political power plays that are eroding the power of some lieutenant governors, NALG's Hurst said the trend over the past five years has been toward more and more responsibility for the states' number two executives. She expects this to continue during the states' budget crisis, as some lieutenant governors take on additional leadership roles to save state money.

"The role has been growing. . . .I think in many states you will see lieutenant governors taking a tremendous amount of initiative," she said.

Hurst points to Minnesota Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau's (R) appointment to head the state Department of Transportation as evidence of the kinds of money-savings roles lieutenant governors can play. By doubling as transportation chief, Molnau saves the state the $108,000 transportation director's salary.

 
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