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Constitutional ‘Crisis’ Bubbles Over As Fiscal Session Begins

In a bloodless coup the leader of the Arkansas Senate occupied the office of the lieutenant governor last week, just in time for the fiscal session of the General Assembly, which started Monday at the state Capitol.

Although most of us thought that the future of the “private option” health care plan would be the major item of business for our lawmakers, we apparently have a constitutional crisis to resolve.

Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, the duly elected Senate president pro tempore, declared himself president of the Senate and therefore the proper authority to supervise the four employees in the lieutenant governor’s office.

Those four public servants had been cast adrift since the forced resignation of Lt. Gov. Mark Darr of Springdale, who had been caught by himself and others violating various state laws involving use of campaign funds and expense reports. That left open the question of whether Gov. Mike Beebe should call a special election to replace an officer who had almost no duties.

The consensus seems to be that he should not.

But that, in turns, raises a question as to whether the taxpayers should continue footing the annual bill of more than $250,000 for a vacant office, when its four staff members now have even less to do and no one to direct them.

You’d think the fiscally conservative Republicans would say no and the tax-and-spend Democrats would say yes. But you’d be wrong.

The politics cannot be ignored.

Darr is a Republican and so had appointed political friends to the four staff positions, whose annual salaries range from $33,660 to $75,132. They now face an uncertain future, a situation that term limits might not have brought on for another five years. And some Republicans don’t think they should be dumped.

However, Gov. Beebe, a Democrat, said he isn’t sure the taxpayers will appreciate funding four positions. He also indicated he would sign a special law leaving the office vacant for the rest of the year.

Therefore, Lamoureux, a public defender, got a friendly legal opinion from the Senate’s legal counsel, Steve Cook, who said that he could assume the duties of the president of the Senate, which include running the office and supervising those four employees. They are apparently hungry for some direction, and Lamoureux conceivably could put them to work lobbying for the extension of the private option, which he happens to support. So do the Democrats, by the way.

That indeed would be one final kick in the teeth to Darr, who won the office by declaring that he would work to abolish “Obamacare.”

Lamoureux’ position didn’t impress Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, whose duties include interpreting the law for public officials. He issued a statement saying that the president pro tempore does not simply become president of the Senate because the office of lieutenant governor becomes vacant. The state Constitution provides only that the lieutenant governor be replaced through a special election.

Details in our laws can be troubling to politicians.

Granted, our 1874 Constitution is not clear on a lot of things. For example, it mixes up the terms “President of the Senate” and “President Pro Tempore.” I could find only one mention of the latter, perhaps because few of us speak Latin today and wouldn’t know that it means temporary president.

Amendment 6 specifies that the lieutenant governor shall be President of the Senate and shall succeed to the governorship in case of vacancy. But there is no provision for a succession to the lieutenant governorship in case it should become vacant. Another amendment lists it as one of the offices that must be filled by special election and not by appointment of the governor.

But there are also references to the “President of the Senate” succeeding to the governorship in case of vacancy in both offices, meaning that the president pro tempore is third in line of succession, followed by the speaker of the House.

Another provision calls for the Senate to elect the President of the Senate at the beginning of each regular session.

Someone with legal expertise will have to sort all this out. Part of the problem is that we’ve amended our Constitution to the point that it’s maddening to read.

But one conclusion we could draw is that Arkansas has little use for a lieutenant governor, much less a well-paid staff. And certainly we could do without ethics battles involving the office.

Lamoureux would surely rather be governor — it pays much better — but there is no vacancy.

The real debate should be over abolishing the office. If we don’t want the president pro tempore to be first in line of succession, we could make it the attorney general or secretary of state, both of whom have real duties to justify a staff.

After the 1874 Constitution passed, we didn’t even have a lieutenant governor until a 1914 amendment, and then the office was vacant until 1927 because of confusion over whether the amendment passed.

Meanwhile, though, several people actually want to be lieutenant governor so the annual salary of $41,896 and lack of duties don’t seem to be a deterrent. This week 2nd District Congressman Tim Griffin will apparently be the third Republican to get into the race.

A better solution would be for no one to run.

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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royo@suddenlink.net.

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