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Oregon highlights whether states really need lieutenant governors

Pray for Oregon: On Wednesday, the West Coast state seems certain to finally pay the price for its longtime failure to elect a lieutenant governor. The resignation of the state’s scandal-plagued governor, John Kitzhaber, takes effect today. Rather than a well-rested lieutenant governor taking his place, as would happen in more civilized places like Massachusetts, the state will be thrust into the hands of its secretary of state, Kate Brown.

Or at least, lieutenant governors in other states must be hoping Brown turns out to be a disaster, so that nobody gets any ideas about eliminating their paycheck. Paying a lieutenant governor doesn’t exactly bankrupt the state, but it’s a superfluous position that has no place in modern state governance. A few states, like Texas, give lieutenant governors actual power, but in most places they’re just the appendix of state government, serving no purpose yet still capable of causing big problems.

Designating another elected, constitutional officer as the successor to the governor is a much better policy. Brown had to run and win election as secretary of state on her own merits, not on a ticket with Kitzhaber, and voters knew when they voted for Brown that they were also picking their backup governor. And since secretary of state is a real job, it attracts a high caliber of candidates: Brown served for 15 years in the Oregon legislature before winning statewide elected office, a more impressive resume than any recent Massachusetts lieutenant governor.


It’s nothing against the Commonwealth’s current lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito. The problem is the office itself, which seems to survive only because it would be too much trouble to get rid of it. But if Oregon manages to survive its transition without sliding into the Pacific, it would provide a standing rebuke to the idea that states need to keep a spare politician on ice in case of emergency.


2013 | Jeff Jacoby: The most useless job in the state