Lieutenant Governor Reforms Long Overdue

April 26, 2008
In a whirlwind of events spanning a single week, New Yorkers lost one governor and gained another. The transition itself was orderly. As is prescribed by our state constitution, when Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor, the lieutenant governor was installed as governor, and both houses of the Legislature have vowed to work with Governor David Paterson to continue the business of governing the state without interruption.

The same constitution that provided procedures for filling a vacancy in the office of governor, however, provides no way to fill a vacancy in the office of lieutenant governor. It only authorizes the Senate Majority leader to perform the lieutenant governorís duties if there is no lieutenant governor. According to the constitution, these consist primarily of casting tie-breaking votes in the Senate, arguably only on matters of procedure.

This leaves the executive chamber without the benefit of a real lieutenant governor focusing all of his or her time and energy on the policies and priorities of the executive branch at the highest management level. It also leaves New Yorkers without a next-in-line who is part of a governorís team, schooled in the inner workings of the governorís office and ready to step in on a momentís notice. In the present case, the office of lieutenant governor will remain empty until January of 2011.

For a number of years now, I have been proposing an amendment to the state constitution that would address this issue. Specifically, the amendment would provide that a vacancy in the office of the lieutenant governor would be filled by a person appointed by the governor and confirmed by a majority vote of both houses of the Legislature sitting together.

My proposed amendment would also create a mechanism so that a lieutenant governor could assume gubernatorial powers if a governor were to become unable to discharge his or her responsibilities, due to ill health, for instance, as if the governor had lapsed into a coma rather than resigned.

Finally, it would repeal the constitutionís so-call "absence" clause, which clearly states that if the governor is Ďabsent from the state,í the lieutenant governor becomes acting governor. This may have made sense centuries ago when modes of communication and transportation were relatively primitive, but it is an anachronism in the present age of instant communication and jet transportation.

Any amendment to the constitution must be passed by two separately elected legislatures and then be approved by the voters of our state in a referendum. Approving the proposal this year would allow next yearís legislature to give it final passage and put it before the stateís voters in a referendum as early as November 2009.

There is no partisan or political gain intended by this measure, nor does it reward any special interest group. This proposed amendment deals simply with good government and ensuring that the people of the State of New York have an orderly and rational framework of governance and gubernatorial succession built into their constitution, no matter who may hold what offices at the time this amendment may be needed.