Lucas Lentsch of the South Dakota Republican Party has been claiming this week, at least in the e-mails he has sent en masse to South Dakota media, that "the state is buzzing" about Ben Arndt's last-minute decision to re-register on the afternoon of Friday, June 25, just in time to qualify as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.
Earlier in June, Scott Heidepriem, a Democrat, selected Arndt, a Republican, to be his running mate. But it was discovered, right at about the time of the Democratic state primary, that South Dakota law won't allow a Republican to be on the ticket with the Democratic nominee for governor. The law cuts both ways — if Dennis Daugaard, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, had selected a Democrat as his running mate, the lieutenant governor candidate would also have to become a Republican to be a viable candidate.
Anyway, Lentsch began going public, railing about how Arndt had to re-register as a Democrat at the very last minute, and how the Heidepriem campaign can't even understand state law, and then you realize that if Lentsch understood the law, he wouldn't have waited until after the fact to point out this problem, which, er, really didn't turn out to be a problem.
In other words, everything is fine, despite what Lentsch wants us to believe.
But Lucas, my boy, (sorry for the obscure reference to The Rifleman) maybe you did do a bit more than generate a bunch of hot air this week. The office of lieutenant governor in South Dakota rarely generates this much attention.
Which has me thinking. Does South Dakota really need a lieutenant governor?
South Dakotans probably, by reflex, will answer "Yes!" Especially those who remember how we lost Gov. George Mickelson in a plane crash in the early 1990s.
That doesn't, however, mean the office of lieutenant governor is needed.
Daugaard, our current lieutenant governor who is seeking to replace Mike Rounds as the state's chief executive, is campaigning, in part, on his accomplishments in that office. He notes that during the 2009 session, he was involved in the creation of the South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority. He has, as lieutenant governor, taken an active role in promoting the Honor Flight Program.
He's been involved with the development of the former Homestake Mine into the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, and has assisted Gov. Rounds in encouraging the establishment of wind farms in South Dakota.
Daugaard also has served on various boards and councils and commissions during his eight years as lieutenant governor – an office, which, in South Dakota, is part time and pays less that $18,000 a year.
In other words, in South Dakota, if you're lieutenant governor, your main job is to sort of hang around just in case something happens to the governor. And serve as president of the Senate when the Legislature is in session, and, well, basically run errands for the governor.
All but five states have a person with the title of lieutenant governor, but in most, he or she has something else, by law, to do while waiting. According to Julia Hurst, executive director of the National Lieutenant Governors Association, there are about six lieutenant governors who are directors of homeland security, and about eight who are designated to run or work in their state's economic development division.
In Indiana, the lieutenant governor, currently Becky Skillman, has multiple roles set out by law, including head of the State Department of Agriculture, the Office of Community and Rural Affairs, the Office of Energy Development, the Office of Defense Development, the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority, and the Office of Tourism Development. The lieutenant governor also serves as the president of the Indiana Senate. In two states, the Senate president has the title and succession responsibility of lieutenant governor.
States that lack a lieutenant governor still have a succession plan, and the 20 gubernatorial successions nationwide in the past decade haven't created any major problems, whether or not the successor was a "lieutenant governor." Voters might dislike the person who takes the governor's seat, but at the end of the day, there is someone sitting in it, and that is the point of succession.
It's time for South Dakota to begin thinking about changing the state constitution to either eliminate the office of lieutenant governor or at least make it a "real" job. Heaven knows that in this budget year alone, far more important things have been cut by the legislature and the governor.
Being lieutenant governor in South Dakota means riding the rubber chicken circuit and serving on a few committees. In this time of fiscal constraint, the person who legally succeeds the governor should actually hold a real job in state government, and do work that actually needs to be done.
The role of the governor's successor then might start adding some real value to South Dakota and its taxpayers.
Given the current budget cuts, maximizing the value of every taxpayer dollar has never been more vital.