Columns » Ernest Dumas

Sitting petty at the Capitol

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This column is about matters of little moment, unless petty waste and vanity aggravate you inordinately.

It is of little moment because it is about two minor state offices, lieutenant governor and secretary of state. Both made some news recently and, as is nearly always the case, the news was trifling or embarrassing.

Although there is no earthly reason for it, we elect the lieutenant governor and secretary of state as if they exercised some of the most important discretionary functions in government. To hear candidates and officeholders talk about it, they do.

John Burkhalter, a rich businessman who spends hundreds of millions of tax dollars a year pretty much at his discretion as a member of the state Highway Commission, announced that he would run for lieutenant governor next year so that he could realize a burning ambition to help Arkansans. As lieutenant governor, he said, he will create jobs and develop the state.

That is a familiar refrain, but the lieutenant governor is not supposed to and can't do those things, at least beyond the reaches of the current lieutenant governor, Mark Darr, who has put more people on his Capitol payroll at higher pay than his predecessors. They perform no public services but form a taxpayer-paid campaign team to help Darr get elected to an important office some day.

Everyone knows Burkhalter has no yearning to be lieutenant governor. He wants to be governor, but the job looks out of reach for him in 2014, as it does for Darr, so Burkhalter will take a job that involves no heavy lifting and will take scant days out of his busy life while he waits for a better moment, maybe 2018.

Manservant in waiting is the office's only purpose. Except for a short spell after the Civil War, Arkansas did not have a lieutenant governor until 1927. Owing to the confusion and bickering after governors in 1909 and 1913 quit only days after taking office — the first after a nervous breakdown and the second after the legislature installed him in the U.S. Senate — voters amended the Constitution in 1914 to create a part-time lieutenant governor, someone who could serve the remaining days of a governor's two years if he died or quit. It needed to be someone who had been elected statewide, but if you designated one of the other constitutional officers as the temporary successor then someone would have to replace that person in his old office. So they authorized a lieutenant governor and gave him one piece of make-work — presiding over the state Senate when he wanted to. When he doesn't want to, the Senate functions just as smoothly with a senator on the dais.

The Supreme Court said the amendment did not pass but changed its mind a decade later, so we elected the first lieutenant governor in 1926. Here is what the lieutenant governor does to earn voters' esteem: He issues press statements, like the one the other day in which Darr praised Exxon Mobil for its handling of the Mayflower oil spill.

Last week, Darr's publicist (salary: $58,935) announced that he did not spend 19 percent of his appropriation for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Lieutenant governors always turn back money because they devise their appropriation with that in mind.

Darr spent $312,770 in fiscal 2012 and his budget for the current year is $398,405. His own salary, $41,896, is paid from a separate appropriation.

Compare Darr and his predecessors. Keep in mind that the lieutenant governor has not been given one new duty since 1927. He presides over meetings of 35 senators for perhaps 200 hours a year, on average, recognizing which senator is in line to speak. For this, he and his four executive assistants knock down about $350,000 a year in pay and retirement matching.

The exemplar for the job was Nathan Gordon, the Medal of Honor winner who presided over the Senate for two decades after World War II. He practiced law at Morrilton and never came to Little Rock when the Senate was not meeting except on rare occasions when the governor was out of the state and some ministerial function was needed, like signing commutations for inmates so the governor would not be blamed. Gordon's last appropriation was $11,054 — total! — and it included his salary, $2,500. The job is exactly the same now, except after Gordon left the Senate slashed the lite governor's power and duties.

Don't let me forget the secretary of state, who maintains the Capitol and grounds and many government records. If he hasn't yet, Mark Martin will soon announce that he didn't spend his entire budget, although the "savings" won't be much because, as one of his pursuers revealed last week, he spent $100,000 for private lawyers to defend him in civil actions for such things as withholding public records. He likely hired them illegally since the law requires him to use the attorney general's office, which is free and was created to do that.

His budget always has padding. When he took office in 2011, Martin took his friends — top aides — to a deluxe mountain resort at Siloam Springs for a $50,000 retreat, where consultants advised on efficiency. Darr and Martin have saved taxpayers by having foreign interests pay for their junkets to such places as Taiwan and Azerbaijan, where they pretend to perform some lofty function.

Inflated self-importance can be the downfall of minor officials. A secretary of state fell into disgrace when he tried to mastermind a "surprise" high-dollar banquet rewarding himself for his services. We have raised the threshold for disgrace.

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