Increased Focus on Whether S.C. Needs a Lt. Governor

July 22, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveIt’s been nearly half a century since the South Carolina lieutenant governor’s seat has been vacant, but there’s growing talk of returning to that status – except this time it would be permanent.

John Crangle, director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause of South Carolina, is trying to line up support among legislators for doing away with the second-in-command position in state government.

“The lieutenant governor’s only consistent functions are to preside over the Senate and to succeed the governor if the governor dies, is incapacitated or impeached,” Crangle said. “And, quite frequently, the lieutenant governor is not in the chamber, and someone else is doing the job of presiding over the Senate.

“We don’t need to pay someone a whole lot of money just to wear a purple robe,” he added.

How much money? In addition to the $46,545 salary that Lt. Gov. Ken Ard earns, the office was allocated more than $1 million last fiscal year for personnel and administration -for what is a part-time position.

“It’s not like we’re not a nation that needs a second in command,” said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens.

Martin introduced a joint resolution during the 2009-10 fiscal budget year that would have abolished the position of lieutenant governor and had the president pro tem of the Senate take over as governor until a successor could be elected in the next general election for the S.C. House of Representatives, which occurs every two years.

Were the president pro tem unable to assume the office of the governor, the speaker of the S.C. House would become the state’s chief executive, according to Martin’s resolution.

Martin introduced the resolution in early 2010, as then-Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer was winding down his second term. It was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee but went no further.

Martin said he didn’t re-introduce the resolution, which called for an amendment to the S.C. Constitution, this past session because he didn’t want there to be an appearance that he was taking a political jab against Ard.

And that, of course, was before Ard became enmeshed in legal difficulties related to campaign finance issues, with some now calling for him to resign.

Ard, who took office earlier this year, was charged with more than 100 ethics violations for alleged improper use of campaign money. The State Ethics Commission issued him the second-largest fine in state history.

Ard earlier this month agreed to pay the Ethics Commission a $48,000 fine and $12,500 to cover investigation costs tied to 107 counts of using campaign cash for personal purposes that included a family vacation, iPads, a gaming system and clothing.

In addition, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson on Wednesday called for the state grand jury to review the campaign-spending case against the lieutenant governor.

Thursday, S.C. Democrats announced that they plan to introduce legislation during next week’s special legislative session that would allow voters to recall statewide elected officials, a move aimed at Ard.

Martin said he plans to keep a low profile on the issue of abolishing the office for the present. However, he did say that he still thinks it’s a good idea.

“If Lt. Gov. Ard’s problems are resolved by January, I would consider reintroducing a resolution to do way with the office,” he said.

Crangle has taken a more active role, calling lawmakers and discussing the idea of eliminating the lieutenant governor’s position. He said he’s gotten positive feedback from the half-dozen lawmakers he’s talked with.

One lawmaker Crangle has spoken with is Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland, who believes the idea at least merits debate by legislators.

Harrison sees some issues with the lieutenant governor’s office as it’s currently concocted.

“In the past six or eight years, we’ve given the lieutenant governor authority over the Office on Aging and I think that it was simply just to give the lieutenant governor something to do,” he said. “That’s really not a good fit there.”

In addition, in recent years the governor and lieutenant governor haven’t really gotten along, Harrison added, referring to the relationship that existed between former Gov. Mark Sanford and Bauer.

“I think maybe a better idea at this point might be having the governor and lieutenant governor run on the same ticket,” Harrison said. “That way you know you’ve got a good relationship between the governor and the lieutenant governor, and you know the lieutenant governor is going to be willing to assist the governor.”

One question that would have to be addressed if the lieutenant governor’s office were abolished is what would happen to the Office on Aging.

As Harrison mentioned, it was moved to lieutenant governor’s office from the governor’s office during Sanford’s tenure and before that was under the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Crangle said that he’s talked with representatives from AARP about the services provided by the lieutenant governor’s office to seniors and while the organization believes the lieutenant governor’s office provides some value in that area, they weren’t convinced it couldn’t be provided by another agency.

There are many, Crangle included, who see the Office on Aging as a political tool, a means for the lieutenant governor to gain media attention by traveling around the state handing out blankets to seniors, for example.

Does S.C. Need a Second-in-Command?

The bigger picture for Crangle and others is the question of whether South Carolina needs a lieutenant governor. The last lieutenant governor to step into the role of top dog was nearly half a century ago when Bob McNair succeeded Donald Russell.

McNair had been elected lieutenant governor in 1962 and succeeded Russell in 1965 when Russell resigned with the understanding that McNair would appoint him to a then-vacant U.S. Senate seat, which McNair did.

Interestingly, the then-Senate President Pro Tem Edgar Brown, one of the most powerful legislators in the South Carolina history, declined to take the lieutenant governor’s position when McNair moved up, Martin said.

“He was supposed to move up, but as far as I can tell what happened was he never bothered to take the oath,” Martin said.

As a result, South Carolina had no lieutenant governor from April 22, 1965, until Jan. 17, 1967, when John West took the second-in-command position after being elected in November 1966.

Prior to that, the last time a lieutenant governor took over as governor was in the early 1940s.

Richard Manning Jeffries had been a long-serving state senator and was serving as Senate president pro tem in 1941 when Burnet Maybank won a special election to fill James Byrnes’ U.S. Senate seat in September 1941, after President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Byrnes to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lt. Gov. J. Emile Harley succeeded Maybank as governor, but Harley, suffering from throat cancer, died less than three months later. Jefferies, who had moved into the second-in-command position, succeeded him on March 2, 1942.

Over the years, the lieutenant governor’s position has been stripped of some of the already-limited power it once had. For example, at one time the lieutenant governor had the authority to appoint conference committees, which work out House and Senate differences on legislation, but that changed in 1997.

As for another duty of the lieutenant governor – voting in case of a tie in the Senate – that’s a rare occurrence.

And were South Carolina to eliminate the position, it wouldn’t be an anomaly.

Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon and Wyoming all get by without a lieutenant governor, according to the website Ballotpedia.

In addition, Tennessee does not directly elect a lieutenant governor; rather, Tennessee state senators elect one of their own to serve as speaker of the Senate, a position that automatically carries the title of lieutenant governor.

Finally, Crangle questions the caliber of individuals who have held the office in recent years.

“I think we’ve had a problem recruiting capable people to run for the office. The last three lieutenant governors have been an embarrassment to the state, quite frankly,” he said. “I just don’t think you’re going to be able to attract good people to that position.”

Having talked with more than half a dozen legislators, Crangle said he hasn’t gotten strong pushback from anyone on his proposal to eliminate the position.

“The general reaction is, ‘I’ve never thought about it before.’ They’re all saying it’s an idea that deserves consideration,” he said.

For now, Crangle is sitting back and waiting to see what happens with Ard. “My strategy is to wait and take advantage of opportunities when they occur,” he said.

“If Ard does resign, the media is going to be very interested. That’s the time to have a bill lined up, get some legislators ready and say, ‘Here’s your solution.’”

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, kevin@thenerve.org.