THE ARCHITECTS of South Carolina’s government created the office of lieutenant governor to have someone ready to step in if the governor died, left office or was removed from office. Absent that happenstance — and the last time it happened was 1965 — it’s hard to think of a less important elected position in our state.
The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate, but senators are perfectly capable of doing that, as they do whenever he has something else he’d rather do.
The Legislature did put the lieutenant governor in charge of the Office on Aging, but that was make-work, designed to give him a political base — the office retains its full-time, professional director — and the move could and should be reversed.
All of which makes it hard to justify spending $600,000 a year to maintain a lieutenant governor and his staff and security detail.
In fact, we can’t think of a justification for even having a lieutenant governor; seven states manage to do without one. But the Legislature has made it clear that it won’t let us eliminate the position. What it finally agreed to do, however, is let us make the position worthwhile.
Which we should do.
The only constitutional amendment on Tuesday’s ballot would let gubernatorial candidates pick their running mates, starting in 2018, rather than continuing to have what should be their top lieutenant thrust upon them through a separate election.
This would align the office with its purpose, by making sure that it is held by someone who shares the governor’s political philosophy and priorities: In the unlikely event that the lieutenant governor had to replace the governor, he would continue to pursue the agenda that got the two of them elected.
This wouldn’t guarantee that we’d get our money’s worth out of the office, but it’s hard to imagine that a governor wouldn’t put her running mate to work, just as presidents keep vice presidents busy. The last time a governor gave the governor-in-waiting anything to do was a quarter century ago; since then, the two have been at best estranged, at worst open enemies.
The change also should improve the quality of lieutenant governors. The lack of meaningful work and the fact that the office has been a dead-end job for the past 40 years have conspired to drive off A-list candidates, resulting in a string of lieutenant governors not worth bragging about. High-quality candidates would be much more likely to run as part of a gubernatorial nominee’s team.
Some question ending the lieutenant governor’s role as president of the Senate. But regardless of how you feel about that (and we support it), here’s the thing: This is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. If we vote this down, we won’t get another chance in two years. Or 10. Probably not even in 20 years.
Worse, rejecting this amendment could doom our chances of dragging our 19th century government into the 20th century. Vote no, and those legislators who prefer the status quo will take it as a message. The people like our government just fine the way it is, they’ll say. The people don’t want to give governors any authority, they’ll say.
This isn’t the most important thing our Legislature could do to improve how our government operates, but it’s a good change, and it’s the one lawmakers have given us the opportunity to make. We need to approve it.