Remind us: Why do we have an independently elected politician with barely any official duties?
Do we need a lieutenant governor in South Carolina? That’s a question that needs to be answered pretty fast, considering the current holder of the office is taking a new job and the next-in-line successor wants to stay right where he is as the Senate president pro tempore.
The main function of the lieutenant governor is to be prepared to assume the role of governor if necessary. That’s no small responsibility, and one that should not be treated lightly. The S.C. Constitution states the lieutenant governor shall take over the role of governor in the event of “impeachment, death, resignation, disqualification, disability, or removal from the State.” It also says, “In the case of the temporary disability of the Governor and in the event of the temporary absence of the Governor from the State, the Lieutenant Governor shall have full authority to act in an emergency.”
The lieutenant governor clearly has a constitutional responsibility to be prepared – at all times – to act in an emergency if the governor is unable to do so. The citizens have a right to expect someone to quickly assume the governor’s duties if necessary. And if the lieutenant governor leaves office for some reason, then the president pro tempore of the Senate assumes the role of lieutenant governor.
In addition to the duty of succession, the lieutenant governor has been in charge of a state agency since 2009, the Office on Aging, which is charged with overseeing federal programs in the state and creating programs to address “current and future needs of aging citizens of South Carolina.” Clearly the lieutenant governor should not be in charge of a state agency, particularly since the Legislature made the lieutenant governor’s role part-time. But he is, and if we have no lieutenant governor, then we have an agency on auto pilot with no accountability to the public for the $38 million budget or oversight of the agency’s programs.
When former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard resigned from office after being indicted on public corruption charges, then-Sen. Glenn McConnell assumed the role. At the time, McConnell said he believed he had a constitutional duty to do so, and that seems very clearly to be the case. But it isn’t easy for a Senate president pro tempore – who has far more power than any executive branch officer – to give up the role for an essentially powerless position. In fact, after 2018 the lieutenant governor will no longer preside over the Senate and thus will have even less power. But power shouldn’t necessarily come with the lieutenant governor’s job. In fact, it’s arguable that the lieutenant governor should have few responsibilities so that he/she is fully prepared at all times to assume the top job in a crisis.
McConnell is leaving his position in July to become the president of the College of Charleston, and Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson has said he won’t take the job. It seems that we’ve done without a lieutenant governor in the past, but the question is whether we should have or should now. Legislative leaders argue that office can simply remain vacant because the lieutenant governor won’t have to preside over the Senate. But again, the main role of the lieutenant governor isn’t to preside over the Senate but to be prepared to assume the role of governor in a crisis.
The Senate president pro tempore has many appointments to state government, including to the committee that chooses judicial candidates. In the S.C. Legislature, preserving and expanding power is the name of the game. But anyone in the pro tem job knows that part of the responsibility is to assume the role of lieutenant governor if necessary.
The point of holding office is public service. No public official is entitled to a “career” in any state role. That means elected officials should be prepared to serve their terms in office to the best of their ability, and to take on whatever responsibilities they have a duty to perform. At the very least, our current lieutenant governor and the Senate president pro tem should publicly explain who will be directly accountable to the public for the Office of Aging and exactly how the succession to governor would be managed if necessary.