RETURN TO FIRST PRINCIPLES

Save a million dollars

By STEVEN FRIAS
Posted 1/20/21

Rhode Island politicians love few things more than patronage. With Gov. Gina Raimondo pursuing her national ambitions and abandoning her recently self-described "massive obligation to the people of Rhode Island," Lt. Gov. Dan McKee will

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RETURN TO FIRST PRINCIPLES

Save a million dollars

Posted

Rhode Island politicians love few things more than patronage.

With Gov. Gina Raimondo pursuing her national ambitions and abandoning her recently self-described “massive obligation to the people of Rhode Island,” Lt. Gov. Dan McKee will become governor.

The office of lieutenant governor, with a salary of about $120,000, a staff of seven employees, and a budget of $1.1 million, will become vacant. Some want the vacancy filed by the Grand Committee, where the House of Representatives would dominate. Others want McKee to choose the next lieutenant governor subject to Senate confirmation. A few suggest a special election.

Meanwhile, an assortment of politicians are seeking the appointment.

Rather than arguing about who should pick the lieutenant governor or who the next lieutenant governor should be, the office of lieutenant governor should be left vacant to save the taxpayers a million dollars during this fiscal crisis. In fact, the office of lieutenant governor should be eliminated.

Over the past century, the office of lieutenant governor was left vacant on numerous occasions. In 1928, it was left vacant for a nearly a year after Lt. Gov. Norman Case became governor upon the death of Gov. Aram Pothier. In 1944, the office was left vacant for about nine months when Lt. Gov. Louis Cappelli was appointed a Superior Court judge.

In 1945,the office of lieutenant governor was left vacant for over a year after Lt. Gov. John Pastore became governor when Gov. J. Howard McGrath received a federal appointment. In 1956, the office of lieutenant governor was left vacant for about eight months when Lt. Gov. John McKiernan

was appointed a Superior Court judge. Keeping the office of lieutenant governor vacant didn’t harm Rhode Island then and it won’t now.

The office of lieutenant governor has been left vacant so many times because it is nonessential. For much of Rhode Island history, the lieutenant governor was a member of the part-time Senate. After a constitutional amendment was adopted in 1909, the lieutenant governor presided over the Senate. However, when there was no lieutenant governor, the Senate president pro tempore presided over the Senate. At times, the lieutenant governor did serve on boards or commissions. However, the lieutenant governor’s duties were so limited that the lieutenant governor had no staff until about 1941 and was given only a part-time salary until 1973. In fact, during the early 1980s Thomas DiLuglio was able to serve as lieutenant governor despite maintaining a law practice and being frequently absent from the State House.

Today, the lieutenant governor’s official duties are even less important. Although the lieutenant governor serves on a handful of advisory boards, the lieutenant governor no longer presides over the Senate because of a constitutional amendment that went into effect in 2003.

The office of Rhode Island lieutenant governor is not only nonessential; it is relatively expensive compared to other states. In a number of states, the lieutenant governor is part-time position with little staff. For example, in Vermont, the lieutenant governor presides over the Senate, but receives only part-time pay and has only one staff member.

In contrast, the Rhode Island lieutenant governor has a salary of over $120,000 and a staff of seven employees. According to the Council of State Governments, the Rhode Island lieutenant governor is about the 13th highest-paid lieutenant governor in the nation. Also, based on recent information from the National Lieutenant Governors Association, the Rhode Island lieutenant governor’s staff appears to be among the largest in the nation.

In the few states where the lieutenant governor does have a larger staff than Rhode Island, it is usually because those lieutenant governors oversee executive branch agencies or departments. Furthermore, Rhode Island is one of only three states where the lieutenant governor does not preside over the Senate or is not elected with the governor as team. Because the governor and the lieutenant governor do not run as team, there is no expectation that the governor will assign important responsibilities to the lieutenant governor. Therefore, Rhode Island’s lieutenant governor does not preside over the Senate, is not customarily assigned important duties by the governor and instead serves as chairman of a few advisory boards. Rhode Island pays too much for an office, which is responsible for so little.

The office of lieutenant governor is an office in search of a purpose. Over time, its purpose usually became serving the ambition of the politician who held the office. For example, Lt. Gov. Richard Licht used the office as springboard to run for U.S. Senate in 1988. Licht sought to more than double the budget his predecessor submitted and have a staff of 11 employees. Afterwards, he ran television advertisements proclaiming himself Rhode Island’s first full-time lieutenant governor. Because of such ambitions, a part-time job eventually ended up having a million-dollar budget.

Small businesses are closing. The budget deficit is over $500 million. Appointing a new lieutenant governor and spending a million dollars on political patronage is not justifiable.

The most efficient use of taxpayer money would be to eliminate the office of lieutenant governor. Instead, the secretary of state would become the governor’s successor, which is the process followed in three other states. If the position is not eliminated, then the governor and lieutenant governor should be elected as a team with the expectation that the governor will assign duties to the lieutenant governor.

Either one of these changes would require a constitutional amendment. If neither change is made, then the best thing to do is elect someone for lieutenant governor who will make the only promise a lieutenant governor actually has the power to fulfill: save the taxpayers a million dollars by not hiring staff and not paying oneself a full-time salary for what is really just a part-time job.

For years, Bob “Cool Moose” Healey campaigned to abolish the office of lieutenant governor. Healey has passed away, but his idea lives on.

Steven Frias is Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, a historian, recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism, and former Chairman of the Cranston Charter Review Commission.

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