The office of lieutenant governor is a “dying institution,” says the man who currently holds the job.
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell predicts that South Carolina voters in November will approve a proposal allowing candidates for governor and lieutenant governor to run on the same ticket — and make the No. 2 job even more of a ceremonial post than it is now.
McConnell, a Charleston Republican, became the state’s 87th lieutenant governor in March, when former Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, R-Florence, resigned and entered a guilty plea for violating state ethics laws. In the space of four days, McConnell — previously president pro tem of the Senate — went from being one of the state’s most powerful politicians to a mostly ceremonial role as lieutenant governor.
Most political observers — thinking McConnell would not be content to disappear into ceremony — looked for him to expand the powers of his new office.
Early on, it looked like McConnell would do that.
He persuaded his former Senate colleagues to give a $5 million boost to the lieutenant governor’s Office on Aging, a sum later reduced to $2 million by the House. And lawmakers gave SLED $200,000 to provide McConnell with a security detail, something that other lieutenant governors had not used.
But Thursday — a day the Senate wrapped up the 2012 session by overturning most of Gov. Nikki Haley’s budget vetoes — McConnell predicted approval this fall for a proposal that, starting in 2018, South Carolina will elect a governor and a lieutenant governor on the same ticket.
“If I decide to run for re-election, I’d be the last lieutenant governor that is president of the Senate,” McConnell said, predicting the president pro tem will oversee the Senate in the future, just as the speaker oversees the S.C. House now. “That’s a dying institution.”
McConnell said he was frustrated for most of the legislative session, mostly due to the lieutenant governor’s limited duties.
The lieutenant governor has just two responsibilities: preside over the Senate and run the state Office on Aging.
He or she only can vote on a bill if the Senate is tied — a rare occurrence.
McConnell started the session as a senator with a legislative agenda: a constitutional cap on state spending, a deficit reduction act and reforming how state agencies impose regulations.
But once he became lieutenant governor, McConnell said he could only watch helplessly from the Senate dais.
“They all sputtered,” he said of his agenda items.
But while McConnell was not on the Senate floor, his former colleagues still looked to him for advice.
On any given day, you could often see groups of senators, Republican and Democrat, huddled by McConnell’s feet as he leaned down from the dais to offer advice on Senate rules — something McConnell knows better than anyone.
On the last day of the regular session — as senators feverishly were debating Haley’s Department of Administration bill — state Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, found an obscure rule tucked deep in the Senate handbook that allowed him to make a motion that basically killed the bill.
Many suspected it was McConnell who tipped off Knotts, a Haley opponent.
But McConnell said it was just Knotts using his newfound knowledge as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, adding he wanted the bill to pass.
“I’m not going to orchestrate or, in any way, try to undermine either the president pro tem (state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, a McConnell ally) or any of the committee chairmen,” McConnell said. “I understand what happened to me. I understand I’m out of the legislative role, and I’m just not going to try to manipulate something.”
While McConnell’s counsel allowed him to remain a Senate power this year, his power will wane, predicted one state senator.
Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, who was elected to the Senate with McConnell in 1981, said he does not see McConnell maintaining his influence over the Senate as lieutenant governor.
“Whatever influence he has will diminish over time,” said Leventis, who is not seeking re-election.
“The influence he has is as a recent, former member. Soon he will be one of many (Senate officers).”
Others say McConnell’s move from Senate leader to lieutenant governor hurt the body this year, an indication of how much his leadership was missed.
McConnell was absent from the Senate floor as a senator twice this session — a permanent absence in March, once he became lieutenant governor, and a temporary absence in January, when he was suffering from an illness.
Both times, according to state Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, the Senate was stuck.
“We spun our wheels for a while,” Massey said. “Lots of people didn’t want to do anything without McConnell there,” when he was ill.
Once he became lieutenant governor, McConnell would decline to get involved in legislative matters, even when speaking to his fellow Republicans, Massey added.
“He’s told me several times, ‘I really can’t get involved in that because I may have to rule on a point of order,’ ” Massey said.
“He understands the differences.”