Hoppy’s Commentary for Thursday

The death of Senator Robert Byrd in 2010 triggered a cascade of political activity in West Virginia.

A temporary Senator was appointed to serve until a special election could be held.  Then-Governor Manchin won the special election and resigned as Governor.  Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin became the Acting Governor, as prescribed in the state Constitution.

Senator Jeff Kessler was elevated to Acting Senate President.

Tomblin later won the Governor’s race in another special election last year and Kessler was chosen by the Senate as that body’s President.

There was controversy and confusion along the way because the succession provisions of the state Constitution had not been tested for 150 years.  Eventually, the state Supreme Court had to get involved. 

In January 2011, the court ordered Acting Governor Tomblin, who had resisted a special election to fill the remainder of Manchin’s term, to call a special election as soon as practicable. 

That was done, and here we are.  Everything is back to normal.  But Governor Tomblin and some lawmakers believe the state needs to fine-tune gubernatorial succession.  They’re proposing the voters change the state Constitution to create a new elected position of Lieutenant Governor.

Under the proposal, "The Governor and Lieutenant Governor shall be nominated and elected jointly and for concurrent terms with voters casting a single vote for both offices."  In other words, they would run as a team, like President and Vice President.

West Virginia may have many needs, but a new office of Lieutenant Governor is not one of them, for a variety of reasons.

First, a vacancy during the Governor’s term is rare.  Before Manchin’s resignation, we have to go back to the 19th century for the last time West Virginia had an Acting Governor. 

Second, what exactly is the Lieutenant Governor supposed to do while he’s waiting around for the Governor to die or quit?  According to the Legislature’s resolution, "The Lieutenant Governor shall serve as head of an executive department or division and undertake other duties as prescribed by the Governor."

That sounds like "make work" to me.  A Governor appoints agency heads, presumably with some expertise, to run departments.  Now he’ll have to stick the Lieutenant Governor in one of those jobs.

Third, as a Constitutional officer, the Lieutenant Governor will need offices and staff.  This won’t be a budget buster, but it doesn’t make sense to add to the size of government. If anything, we should be making government smaller.

Fourth, the succession we’ve just gone through actually worked.  The debate over when an election should be held to fill the gubernatorial vacancy was settled by the state Supreme Court.   If there is another vacancy in the Governor’s office anytime soon, we know how it’s supposed to work.

The political rearrangement of the political deck chairs following Senator Byrd’s death made for a fair amount of drama under the Capitol Dome, but government still functioned–the bills were paid, tax refunds were mailed, children went to school and, as per article 2, section 7 of the state Constitution, "the great seal of the state of West Virginia" was secure.

All this and more was accomplished without a Lieutenant Governor.  I suspect we can make it another 150 years or so without one. 

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