In a few days (Saturday, May 14) the voters of West Virginia will choose nominees for governor in a special primary election.
This will be followed by a special general election on Oct. 4. The person winning that election will become governor on Nov. 15.
All this is the result of a series of events triggered by the death this past summer of United States Sen. Robert C. Byrd. A special election to replace him resulted in the election of then-Gov. Joe Manchin to the U.S. Senate to replace Byrd.
Our state constitution says that upon the vacancy of the office of governor the president of the state senate "shall act as governor until an election is called to fill the vacancy." The constitution does not say when that election is to be held or who is to call it.
A statute subsequently enacted by thelegislature clarifies who shall call the election (the acting governor). But that law is not clear as to when the election is to be held.
Last February the State Supreme Court ruled that the special election must be held in time for a new governor to be sworn in by Nov. 15. That's one year to the date that State Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin was sworn in as acting governor.
Acting Gov. Tomblin had taken the position (and I agreed with him) that the state constitution and statute could be interpreted to allow him to remain acting governor until the general election of 2012. Under that scenario the special election could be held in conjunction with the regularly scheduled election for a full term as governor on that date.
The high court rejected that argument. Had the justices OK'd it, we would have been spared the expense of $14 million we're now forced to pay for the two special elections (primary and general).
I have a friend who tells me that every time someone from out-of-state asks him what the heck is going on he says the following. "Look at it his way. We're going to have an election for governor every six months for the next two years!"
Hey, I believe in democracy as much as anybody. But I think this is preposterous. By November 2012 we're going to look like France and Italy in the years right after World War II. They changed prime ministers every few months.
I'm convinced the State Supreme Court could have ruled differently. But it did not, so we're stuck with this $14 million expense.
For the future I think we need an elected lieutenant govenor, as most other states have. This would require a change to the state constitution, which takes a two-thirds vote of each house of the legislature and a majority vote of the people at a referendum to be put into effect. The idea has been proposed in the past but has been rejected because of the additional expense.
Some of the same people who oppose the expense of a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year to have a lieutenant governor think it's OK to spend $14 million on special elections every time a governor dies, goes to the U.S. Senate or is named ambassador to some warm-weather country. Go figure.
A few months ago I proposed an idea which would eliminate the expense problem. The constitution would specify clearly that the lieutenant governor would receive no money (salary or expenses) for the position. It would further say that upon election the newly elected governor shall appoint the newly elected lieutenant governor to any cabinet-level position. The lieutenant govenor would draw the salary of that office.
The constitution would further specify that the governor and lieutenant governor would have been elected as a "team," just like the president and vice president of the United States. The result would be a lieutenant governor who generally shares the political philosophy of the governor on the job full-time running a department and sitting in on cabinet meetings. He or she would be instantly ready to take over the reins of government should the governor's office become vacant for any reason. Acting Gov. Tomblin has endorsed this idea.
If we don't do this we should at least change the constitution to provide that upon a vacancy in the office of governor the president of the senate would "become" (not "act as") governor. This would at least eliminate the necessity of special elections in the future.
That would not solve the problem of having a temporary governor who was not elected by a majority of the people, nor would it guarantee that the temporary governor would generally pursue the policies of the governor elected in the last regularly scheduled election. The idea of a lieutenant governor who was a "running mate" with the governor being appointed by that governor to a cabinet-level position and drawing the salary only of that cabinet-level position solves all three problems (continuity, expense and election by the people).
I think we must wait until 2014 to resolve this question. Why? Tune in next week.