Have Governor Pick Lieutenant Governor, Plus Give #2 More To Do

Have Governor Pick Lieutenant Governor, Plus Give #2 More To Do

By David A. Atkinson

When states are compared on policy issues and financial matters, Pennsylvania rarely ranks high.  However, our state is counted among the league leaders in political peculiarities.  Certainly that list includes choosing governors and lieutenant governors separately in the primary election, rather than allowing gubernatorial candidates to select their running mate.

If a silver lining is to be found in the revelations about undisclosed but apparently disconcerting behavior on the part of current Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack and his wife, it is forcing a public debate about the nature and future of the office.

How many times have we heard the question asked in the wake of scandal, wrongdoing, or embarrassment: Are we finally ready for reform?  If a recent hearing by the Senate State Government Committee is any indication, the response in this instance is affirmative and bipartisan.  Former lieutenant governors, Republican and Democrat, all but one elected, offered testimony that underlined why having a governor and lieutenant governor team would be preferable.

Obviously, with government spending being a serious point of contention, some people want to go scorched earth and scrap the office entirely.  Granted, a few states go without, but the price of small savings now could be big operational problems down the trail.

Why keep the position?  State government continues to expand, not just in cost, but in responsibility.  The federal government shoves mandates down the hill.  States cook up ideas of their own, and decide to preempt local prerogatives.  It is increasingly difficult for a governor to do it all, effectively operating without a cooperative and dependable sidekick.

The importance of having a ready stand-in was driven home in the early ‘90s.  When Governor Bob Casey underwent double transplant surgery, Pennsylvania benefitted by having Mark Singel step in as acting governor.  He was familiar with the priorities and policy agenda of the governor and the administration players charged with carrying them out.  Without a lieutenant governor available, even a temporary succession by someone from the legislative branch, potentially of the other party and bearing a far different governing philosophy, could prove a paralyzing mess.

It is worth noting two recent instances when the Senate President Pro Tempore replaced the lieutenant governor.  This did not prove disruptive because of the professionalism and grace of Bob Jubelirer and Joe Scarnati.  But it only involved taking on the modest assigned duties of the lieutenant governor, not the full array of levers the governor works.  They were respectable placeholders, rather than executive branch decisionmakers.

The odds of a voter-arranged marriage working well are not high even in theory.  Experience shows the sometimes gaping difference between electability and capability.  There is a functional cost incurred by Pennsylvania when the governor and lieutenant governor are fundamentally incompatible.

Call it remedy or reform, a different approach is warranted.  Since 2003, constitutional amendments have been proposed seeking to end the odd-duck practice of electing the governor and lieutenant governor separately.  Action has yet to occur.  While this is not an imminent crisis, there appears to be little downside to this change.  Not costly, not complicated, not controversial.

Conversely, it is hard to discern an upside to the current arrangement.  There is something of an argument that a separate lieutenant governor race allows fresh talent to audition before the voters on a statewide basis.  But with no recent track record of lieutenant governors rising to the top spot through election, this point loses cachet.

There is a chance to do something more, and in fact the public deserves more in exchange for their hoped-for consent.  First, curtail the perks of the office.  With taxpayers increasingly insistent on less spending and more accountability, a position with high pay and few formal assignments is tough to justify.  That leads to the second important change, giving the lieutenant governor more official duties.  It has long been joked that the job description includes a single line – no heavy lifting required.  Insiders commonly reference the “light” governor.  There is no reason for this to persist.  The training a lieutenant governor would receive through meaningful assignments beyond the ceremonial would be useful if unpredictable or unfortunate circumstances make succession a necessity.

There are plenty of experts to consult as to what the additional assigned duties might be.  There are former governors and lieutenant governors, as well as their staffs.  Even a notorious hand-in-everything manager type such as Ed Rendell could have benefitted from a reliable bench coach.

With the lieutenant governor carrying a larger portfolio, governors are likely to tilt their selection more to the policy side than the political.  There is no guarantee that governors will be infallible in their picks, but intentional selection improves the odds greatly over random election.

Pennsylvania should strike while the subject is hot.  This does not seem a proposition likely to get ambushed by a skeptical public.  It does not have to await a possible constitutional convention and get wrapped with other issues.  There are a variety of reforms citizens are seeking.  This one is advisable and readily achievable.

David A. Atkinson is an Associate of The Susquehanna Valley Center.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.