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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Should Utah eliminate office of lieutenant governor?

Published: Sunday, May 1 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

Pignanelli: From personal experience, I know Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert is a wonderful, competent person. (Note: My wife, a huge fan of Herbert, wishes to declare that our marriage should not suggest she endorses, or even likes, my columns — especially this one). Notwithstanding Herbert's superb attributes, the history and status of his office requires its elimination.

Clyde L. Miller served as secretary of state (the original name for lieutenant governor) from 1965 to 1977. As superintendent of the Capitol grounds, he spread patronage with amusing results. His security guards constantly mishandled their weapons, and the bullets are still lodged in the marble walls. Miller ordered that the guards could keep their guns but not carry any bullets. Veteran politicos recall the colorful but controversial Miller brought Utahns of different political and religious stripes together for an important purpose: to pray for the continued health of Gov. Calvin Rampton.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dave Monson (1977-1985) angered Democrat Gov. Scott Matheson early on and was excluded from any major role. In order to prevent such partisan disagreements, the Constitution was amended so the governor and lieutenant governor were elected in tandem, from the same political party. This did nothing to enhance the responsibilities of the office. During the tenure of Val Oveson (1985-1993), many responsibilities under his jurisdiction (i.e. business filings, Capitol security) were transferred to other Departments. The lieutenant governor remained the state chief elections officer, with county clerks administering most voting activities.

The current responsibilities for the lieutenant governor are either ceremonial ("Custodian of the Great Seal of Utah") or dependent upon gubernatorial assignments. The vague statutory duties can be fulfilled by Cabinet members or other appointments. A bipartisan election/ethics commission (much needed anyway) can supervise elections. Utah's governors have been healthy and stable — they always complete their terms (Mike Leavitt is the sole exception). Thus, a handy standby is an unnecessary luxury. Succession for the improbable vacancy can be designated to other constitutional offices including the Senate president, House speaker and attorney general.

Eliminating state offices is not a novel concept. The Little Hoover Commission, initiated by Rampton in 1966, suggested the state treasurer was no longer needed. The 1996 Democratic nominee for state treasurer, the charming and delightful D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, promised to abolish the office if elected. No one could articulate why a gubernatorial appointment could not complete the same tasks at a lower cost. Statewide elected officers are not needed for duties that are duplicated, or can be effectively performed, by other officials. Gov. Huntsman is demanding a complete overhaul of state government to maximize efficiency. All would know he means business with a proposal to eradicate the lieutenant governor, treasurer and auditor positions. The best makeovers start at the top with a haircut — and so should a restructuring of state functions.

Webb: So, Frank wants to eliminate the office of lieutenant governor. Truly a dumb idea. It's such a bad suggestion on so many levels that surely only a fuzzy-thinking Democrat could have dreamed it up.

There is, for example, the little problem of succession. Suppose the governor were to die in office, become incapacitated or take another job (as Mike Leavitt did). Who would become governor?

The Senate president (currently next in line after the LG) or House speaker could move up, but then we'd have a governor who was elected by only a small fraction of the state's voters, and not for that specific job. A special election could be held, but it would be expensive and disruptive.

Utah's current system makes a lot more sense: The lieutenant governor runs in tandem with the governor, voters fully understanding the LG is next in line, ready to ascend to the governorship if necessary. If the governor leaves midterm, you have continuity and a smooth transition. Just like president and vice president.

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