Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

EDITORIAL>>Special vote not needed

Arkansans always love an election, but there are cheaper forms of entertainment and sometimes far better ways to spend the money. We do not need to hold a special election to install a new lieutenant governor this year.

It is no disrespect to the late beloved Win Paul Rockefeller to say that the state will be no worse off if his shoes are not filled before January, when a new lieutenant governor will have been chosen at the general election. Gov. Huckabee ought to put that issue to rest right away and say that he will not waste the taxpayersí money, a million dollars or more, by holding a statewide special election to fill a vacancy that will last at most three months.

No legislative session is planned before January, and presiding over the Senate when it is in session is the lieutenant governorís only prescribed function. If Huckabee suddenly discovers an emergency that requires the legislature to assemble, the president pro tempore of the Senate or any senator whom he designates can do the job very nicely.

Win Paul Rockefellerís gentle presence at the Capitol was missed during the year or so that he was undergoing treatment in Seattle, but government was not handicapped. It has always been so since the state installed the first lieutenant governor in 1927.

The state will endure a long campaign for lieutenant governor by Democrat Bill Halter and Republican Jim Holt in the general election. Voters should be asked to tolerate more tedium than that.

We have an even better idea. The legislature could save taxpayers a fair amount of money and the government needless confusion by offering voters a constitutional amendment to abolish the position permanently.

Until a few years ago, the lieutenant governorís office cost almost nothing, mainly the tiny part-time salary paid the lieutenant governor, who rarely set foot in the Capitol except for the few weeks every two years that the legislature was in session.

But a succession of lieutenant governors tried, unsuccessfully, to make the job something bigger with elaborate offices, a staff, travel and full-time security. It is all wasted.

The lieutenant governor, at least in Arkansas, is a constitutional aberration. He presides over the state Senate, in violation of the separation of powers doctrine, simply because he needed to be given some function. It is an intrusion of the executive branch into the lawmaking function and there is no excuse for it except that the founding fathers gave that job to the vice president of the United States, for the same spurious reason.

But the vice president no longer presides over the U.S. Senate except when a tie vote on a matter critical to the president looms. Then the vice president goes there to preside a few minutes and cast the deciding vote in the presidentís favor.

But under the Arkansas system, the lieutenant governor is not even a part of the executive team, so he does not guarantee continuity. He may be and frequently is a rival of the governor, and he may be of the opposite party.

One only has to recall the mischief in 1992 when the lieutenant governor, Jim Guy Tucker, and his arch-rival Bill Clinton battled for nine months over the reins of power while Clinton was in and out of the state campaigning for president.

The idea when the office was created less than a century ago (the amendment creating it was first declared defeated, and then resurrected years later) was that if the governor left the state for an extended period emergencies might arise and there would be no executive power to respond to them.

But in those days, owing to primitive communications, a governor who crossed the border was likely incommunicado. That has not been the case in more than half a century.

Also, the constitutional provision that gives the lieutenant governor executive power when the governor goes to Memphis or anyplace beyond the state line are dead relics and, like the office of lieutenant governor, should be scrapped.

The president of the United States flies to Europe or Asia for a week but he does not surrender the power to the vice president. Why should the governor of Arkansas?

But those are issues for another day, only to be cogitated upon now. Meantime, letís not waste taxpayersí precious dollars on a meaningless election even if we do have a surplus.