The Ongoing Quest to Make RI’s Lieutenant Governor Relevant

Occasionally, I receive emails from people using my contact form. Sometimes they tell me “good job” or ask me for an opinion on policy/current events. Sometimes people give me their names, and emails, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I respond, sometimes I don’t.

This came in this morning, anonymously:

Sam, you’re someone who thinks a lot about systems of government, so I want to run my pitch for the LG’s office by you.

Obviously the best use of the LG position is for it to preside over the Senate, but that would require the Senate President to cede power back to the executive. So why not take it all the way and eliminate the position? I’m proposing that the governor nominate a senator for the position of lieutenant governor and that person is confirmed by majority vote in the full Senate. I think it should be the Governor’s discretion but it’s that’s too hard a sell, the Senate could provide a list of names for the Governor to choose from.

That would strengthen the executive branch while still leaving the power in the hands of the Senate. Plus, it would put an inherent bond between the Gov and the Senate, which could help to check the power of the Speaker. It would also give minority-party senators slightly more power, while also saving taxpayers the salary of the vestigial office of the LG.

It’s not without precedent – the Tennessee LG is elected by the senate from their own ranks.

From: No Thank You

Before I get to this email’s proposals, it’s worth mentioning what the recent systems have done. The 1842 Constitution, which RI operated under until 1986, used a system where the governor was technically president of the Senate, and the lieutenant governor was president in the governor’s absence. It appears that, as the Governor’s office grew in importance, the lieutenant governor became the de facto senate president.

In 1986, we finally made that real. Below is a rough chart of how this worked (the section sign, §, is used to denote legislation).

However, as part of an exchange for downsizing the legislature, the Senate was given the ability to pick its own presiding officer, resulting in our current system:

Long-time readers know that I believe the decision to eliminate the Lieutenant Governor as presiding officer of the Senate resulted in a vestigial office that only has one serious role: wait for the Governor’s office to be vacant. And since that has no actual value, we could easily eliminate the position and allow another general officer to succeed in the event of a gubernatorial vacancy.

Famously, the late Bob Healey spent much of his post-2003 political career advocating the abolition of the LG’s office.

Now, there are people who argue that the LG’s office does have value, and it really depends on who occupies it. They say that the LG can act as a public advocate, that the office’s bully pulpit can be used to push the governor towards priorities the governor would otherwise not do. This is the “activist-in-chief” model, and frankly, in my view, it just doesn’t work.

We’re seeing the test of that currently, as Dan McKee pushes the governor to use CARES Act funds to assist small businesses. As far as I can tell, he’s been fairly unsuccessful in getting anywhere. Earlier this year, he openly complained that he didn’t have much communication with the governor, and said “I’m not part of her administration.”

And that’s true. But that’s the problem with bully pulpit politics; it only really works with if the person with the bully pulpit also has respected, institutional power. The governor has a bully pulpit. The lieutenant governor does not. As a former South Dakota Lieutenant Governor once told Stateline: “normal people don’t know the name of their lieutenant governor.”

The LG only has the powers granted to them by the Governor. McKee’s complaint that he’s not part of the governor’s administration is accurate. These positions are separately elected. Gov. Raimondo was elected to run the government. Lt. Gov. McKee was elected to be a spare (and no one takes their spare out of their trunk to drive around on unless it’s really needed).

And this is where I get to No Thank You’s email.

No Thank You is essentially proposing that the LG return to being president of the Senate, but instead of being directly elected, it would be nominated by the Governor with the consent of the Senate. So, to do this visually, it would look like this:

According to No Thank You, this is supposed to work to bring the Senate and governor more closely together, as the Governor now picks the presiding officer, and the Senate confirms that officer. Together, they would act as a counterweight to the Speaker of the House.

I think this is a nice assumption, but I cannot see it working out this way. In No Thank You’s system, the Senate will inherently hold a lot of control over the selection of the LG; even if it’s not explicitly granted that power, but just by nature of the vote. As in the case of RI Supreme Court Justice, the Senate does not have to explicitly pass a law that says “we would like the Supreme Court Justice to be Erin Lynch Prata” – it can just refuse to approve anyone who is not Erin Lynch Prata. The Senate could simply refuse a governor’s nominee if it wasn’t to their liking, set up their own de facto presiding officer through their rules (likely the Majority Leader), and go on with their business.

The Governor-Senate alliance that No Thank You suggests would be a counterweight to the Speaker is uncompelling. First, nothing stops the Governor from creating a Senate liaison position now. Second, the Speaker’s powers can’t be addressed by constitutional changes, they’re more a matter of the House rules interacting with the constitutional and legal powers of the House. The Speaker is powerful because House rules say he is, not because of anything inherent in the Constitution. And altering the constitutional relationship between Senate and Governor doesn’t alter the House rules.

This, ultimately, is the problem with a great many attempts to make the lieutenant governor’s office relevant. There simply isn’t anything left for it to do. We’ve already decided that the lieutenant governor should not be a presiding officer in the legislature. We don’t need it to be treasurer or secretary of states or attorney general. There’s nothing left but for it to be the person who waits around for the governor to vacate the office, something that has yet to happen in the 34 years since our constitution was adopted! In fact, there have been more vacancies for lieutenant governor than for governor, and yet we still haven’t sorted out how the lieutenant governor is replaced.

So let’s get to the most common solution to the issue of “what do you do with a vestigial lieutenant governor?” And that’s “have them run as a ticket.”

So, the ticket works to make the lieutenant governor function as something. Governors will have a role in selecting their running mates, and so they’ll likely have the LG do things. No LG would have McKee’s complaint of not being part of the administration.

But now a problem arises with the succession. Under the current system, we’re literally electing our spare governor. We know exactly what the LG is supposed to do: wait to be governor; the elected LG has a voter mandate to be governor. But if LG is ticketed, then when there’s a vacancy in the Governor’s office, the question will be, “well, who elected that person to be Governor?” and the answer will be, “well, the previous governor, really.” You can make the case that they hold the same mandate, but in practice, most voters are voting for the leading candidate, not for their running mate.

To me, the easiest and simplest solution is to simply abolish the LG’s office, have the General Officers succeed in some order (personally, I’d go: Treasurer, Secretary, Attorney General), and go on with our lives.

Alternatively, we could really think about what we want our government to look like, and go more with more radical directions. I may have suggested some.

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