Monday, June 19, 2006

 

Power of 'lite gov' depends on its occupant


By Brandon Larrabee Morris News Service
Monday, June 19, 2006

ATLANTA - Calling the office of lieutenant governor "lite gov" is becoming less of an inside joke at the Gold Dome and more a description of the office.
The Georgia Constitution spells out two duties for the office, created in the mid-20th century: The lieutenant governor serves as governor should something happen to the state's highest elected official, and presides over the Senate.
"The powers of it in the constitution are almost zero," said Mike Digby, a political science professor at Georgia College and State University.
The fact is not insignificant for the seven men and women currently running for the office in their party primaries. How much they are able to move their own agenda - if they are able to do so at all - could come down to the strength of the office.
the power of the office has ebbed and flowed, depending on who held the position and the political circumstances of the day. After ceding some power initially, then-Lt. Gov. Zell Miller eventually gained quite a bit of sway over the Senate when he held the office in the 1970s and 1980s.
"Until Zell Miller, it was pretty much seen as a part-time job," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. But something not anticipated by those who added the office of lieutenant governor decades ago happened in 2002. Through electoral victories and party switches, the GOP took control of the Senate for the first time since Reconstruction.
Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat, won re-election.
Something had to give.
Mr. Taylor was stripped of some of his most significant duties. The ability to appoint, and fire, committee chairmen was transferred to a three-member Committee on Assignments, which also included the Senate president pro tem and the Senate majority leader, both of whom were Republicans. The administration of the chamber went to President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.
BUT MR. JOHNSON SAID a lieutenant governor of his party might see at least some of that authority returned.
"I anticipate it being a Republican, and I anticipate there being a cooperative agreement in the Republican caucus that gives the lieutenant governor most, if not all, of the powers back," said Mr. Johnson, noting that the rules spell out additional duties of the lieutenant governor.
Because they run the chamber, the majority party essentially dictates the rules for either chamber. Republicans and many Democrats believe that the Senate is almost certain to remain in GOP hands after this year's elections.
"I would expect that the powers would probably go up," Mr. Digby said.
The plum, of course, is the ability to appoint committee chairmen, because those lawmakers have enormous influence over which bills make it to the floor.
"I'd be surprised to see (the next lieutenant governor) regain all of it," Mr. Bullock said.
Part of that is because the entire Senate will control which powers the lieutenant governor gets. And, especially if Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed gets the job, there could be a perception that the lieutenant governor is something of an outsider.
"It may also be that senators, by and large, would prefer to have it administered by this committee of three, two of whom are colleagues," Mr. Bullock said.
MOST OF THOSE RUNNING for the job seem undeterred.
When he officially qualified in April to run for lieutenant governor, Mr. Reed said he believed that the problems with powers could be solved simply by getting the right person in the job.
"I think the people of Georgia desire and deserve an effective ... lieutenant governor," Mr. Reed said. "I think part of that is changing the occupant."
Sen. Casey Cagle, R-Chestnut Mountain and Mr. Reed's opponent in the GOP primary, says he has an edge because a vast majority of his colleagues in the upper chamber have endorsed him.
For his part, Mr. Taylor has been able to get bills passed despite his diminished sway. Those cracking down on online predators and creating new benefits for National Guardsmen passed to bipartisan acclaim.
From the Monday, June 19, 2006 edition of the Augusta Chronicle

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