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Omdahl: Lt. governor: The tonsil of state government

Omdahl writes, "There are five states that do not have lieutenant governors – Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon and Wyoming. North Dakota has one but that will probably be abolished when the oil money runs out. After all, it’s only an appendix or a tonsil."

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The Democratic-NPL party will be honoring the legacies of Govs. William Guy, Art Link and George Sinner at a fifth annual raucous party in Bismarck on May 7th.

On behalf of former lieutenant governors – at least Wayne Sanstead and me - I am boycotting the event, tired of being treated as the expendable appendix or tonsil of body politic.

The government wouldn’t fall but just hobble along without our traditional back-up for the governor. Governors never get backed up even though that’s the reason the office of lieutenant governor exists. The only time the governor needed a back-up, nobody told me. Apparently, they thought the governor’s office would be safer if I remained ignorant.

There are five states that do not have lieutenant governors – Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon and Wyoming. North Dakota has one but that will probably be abolished when the oil money runs out. After all, it’s only an appendix or a tonsil.

In 1974, the people approved a measure that required governors and lieutenant governors be elected as a team. Prior to that time, the state had a problem with mixing horses of different colors so they thought government would be more peaceful under the team concept.

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Prof. Larry Sabota of the University of Virginia, a nationally-recognized guru of state and local government, summarized the position of lieutenant governor:

“It’s a part-time, poorly paid post whose occupants mainly spend their time running for governor.”

This is not so in North Dakota. In 1976, Wayne Sanstead became the first full-time lieutenant governor and was given a portfolio that involved federal money. He became more of a utility player in later years.

Our lieutenant governors have not spent their time running for governor. They have been faithfully fielding foul balls. For many states, Sabota is right. Lieutenant governors are often trying to upstage governors to acquire political recognition. They are a pain in the body politic and elsewhere.

Now days at the outset of an administration the governor issues an executive order outlining the duties of the lieutenant governor. Of course, at the end of the order we find “and anything else that comes up.”

So lieutenant governors chair or serve on several of the 100 committees, boards and commissions that make up North Dakota government. The governor always gets more invitations to speak than he can accept, so the lieutenant governor fills in by ribboning prize pigs, naming water holes, opening picnic areas, or speaking at lesser funerals. Hardly a launching pad for a gubernatorial campaign.

Since early 1900, lieutenant governors in the U.S. tried to run for governor 55 times and lost 38 times – 31% success rate or a 69% failure rate, depending on one’s point of view.

In 1978, the people approved a constitutional amendment that would permit the lieutenant governor to break ties in the senate. I had only one tie in two sessions of the senate.

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Ironically, the issue was removing the lieutenant governor as presiding officer in the senate. The proposal was a plot between then Sen. Wayne Stenehjem and me to get an interloper from the executive branch thrown out of the legislative branch. The measure got swamped by a 59% “NO” vote, the constitutional principle of separation of powers notwithstanding.

Before the 1990 meeting of the National Lieutenant Governors’ Association, I pointed out to the officers that the National Governors Association was meeting only three days while the lieutenant governors met for five days. It didn’t make sense. Another thing, the substance of the convention was supposed to be workshops but no one was attending them.

They told me that I was in line to be president but they had chosen someone else. Apparently, they didn’t like North Dakota logic.

So I continued in obscurity without their help.

Omdahl is a former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@midco.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

READ MORE FROM LLOYD OMDAHL
Omdahl writes, "In the two-house system, the legislators are always gaming the system to confuse accountability or avoid responsibility for their actions. There is too much buck-passing in the bicameral system."

Opinion by Lloyd Omdahl
Omdahl is a former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@midco.net

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