Lt. Governors: Are They Expendable?

May 13, 2011

Imagine a job where the only function is taking-over if the boss quits, is fired, gets sick or even worse.  That pretty much describes Kentucky’s lieutenant governor.  Four people, one Democrat and three Republicans, are campaigning for that job.  And, as WEKU’s Charles Compton reports, their duties, will in large part, depend on who’s elected governor…

Kentucky’s governor is the Commonwealth’s chief executive officer.  The attorney general is the state’s lawyer. The treasurer manages the money.  And the state auditor tries to keep everybody honest.  But, the lieutenant governor’s job is a bit vague.  During a forum on Kentucky Educational Television, in this edited version, host Bill Goodman asked the three candidates in the GOP primary to explain the position.

Bill Goodman - “What are the duties and responsibilities of the lieutenant governor?”

Mike Harmon - “Well, I mean, right now, primarily the lieutenant governor actually waits to see if anything happens to the governor.”

Goodman - “What would you like to do Mr. Farmer?”

Richie Farmer - “Well, I think, like Mr. Harmon, David and I have talked about this and we certainly are employing the team aspect of this and we want to work together as a team.”

Goodman - “Mr. Vermillion?”

Bill  Vermillion, Jr. - “Just like Mike and Richie, Bobbie and I, we’ve had several discussions on what my role would be and I’m gonna’ to be serving at the need of the governor and the people of Kentucky.”

Until 20 years ago, when Kentucky revised its state constitution, lieutenant governors had a much clearer job description. 

For example, lieutenant governors headed the state senate and could break ties.  They were also elected on a separate ticket and had few political ties to the governor.  Sometimes, they were even from an opposing party. 

And that created a problem.  When governors traveled outside the Commonwealth, their powers were transferred to the lieutenant governor.  State historian James Klotter of Georgetown College, says the state constitution presented a powerful temptation to Kentucky’s second-in-command, and, left a duly-elected administration vulnerable. 

“And that made some people almost a hostage with a lieutenant governor that was on the other side of fence either politically or factionally.  That made it very hard for some governors to function because they were afraid of what their lieutenant governor would do,” said Klotter.

However, in 1992, the state constitution was amended and, Klotter says lieutenant governor is now a much weaker post.

“The lieutenant governor has two things, has the ability to make the office what he or she wants to make it.  And, they have the ability then, the governor does, to help the lieutenant governor be a functioning part of the administration and add to the administration in a great way,” said Klotter.

“I’ll lead off by saying the office should be abolished,” said Paul Patton, who served Kentucky both as governor and lieutenant governor.

“Right now, the lieutenant governor is picked based on who would bring you the most votes in the election.  I did that.  Everybody has done that since the governor chose the lieutenant governor.  And that is not necessarily the best person to become governor should the office become vacant,” added Patton.

Patton says the position was once a “pretty good” training ground.  Lieutenant governors built statewide political support, and learned the real-work of state government. 

That, he says, is no longer true.  For proof, Patton notes, since that office was overhauled, no lieutenant governor, including his lieutenant governor Steve Henry, has moved onto the top job.

“I would submit to you, that the new arrangement, the lieutenant governors won’t be elected governor.  Because, as I told Steve Henry, he would end of with all the problems of my administration, and get none of the credit,” said Patton.

Instead, Patton suggests, a constitutional amendment.  If needed, he says another leading state official could take-over as a temporary administrator.  Then, within a couple months, Kentucky could conduct a special election. 

Meanwhile, Kentuckians must cope with this month’s election.  And, later this year, voters will pick an occupant for what is perhaps the most powerless position in state government, hoping they won’t need him to take over Kentucky’s most powerful office.