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April 15, 2017

Should Pennsylvania just get rid of its lieutenant governor's office?

Investigation into Mike Stack raises questions, and conflicting answers

Investigations into Pennsylvania politicians are essentially standard operating procedure. But a recent probe into the behavior of Lt. Gov. Mike Stack begs a rather interesting question.

Why does the office exist in the first place?

Here's the gist of Inspector General Bruce Beemer's investigation of the man next-in-line to Gov. Tom Wolf: Sources told Lancaster Online that Stack and his wife, Tonya, allegedly routinely verbally abused their state police protection when the troopers refused the couple's orders to use sirens and flashing lights to clear traffic for routine trips — such a move would be a violation of state policy.

The couple also allegedly berated five staff members who cook, clean and take care of the property at their taxpayer-funded mansion in Fort Indiantown Gap, the news outlet reported.

Stack, a former state senator from Philadelphia, has since issued a semi-apology, speaking to reporters Wednesday and explaining that he was just having a "Stack moment." Per LehighValleyLive:

"If I've ever said something in anger or frustration, being in a rush, something like that, where a state trooper felt I was telling them how to drive or how to operate their emergency response procedures, if I ever gave that impression I was wrong. ... And I apologize. But one thing I want you to know, as I said, these guys are the boss. They have all the training. They make the decisions. And they should."

Before the media scrum, a PennLive editorial published Wednesday morning had a brutal verdict for Stack: Eliminate the lieutenant governor's position altogether.

After all, his job his largely a ceremonial safety blanket. The lieutenant governor's official duties include presiding over the state senate and breaking ties (considering the GOP's lopsided advantage in the Pennsylvania Capitol, that's not likely happening soon), sitting on the board of pardons, and succeeding the governor should he or she leave office.

PennLive points to states like Tennessee where the speaker of the senate serves the same role, as does the secretary of state in Arizona. Lieutenant governors really only attain any power if the governor's give it to them, the editorial board writes.

And while nixing the position's $160,289 salary and $1.7 million total annual burden on taxpayers actually wouldn't do much for the broad scope of the state's budget, it would send a message.

Per PennLive:

But in politics, optics matter. If the other state agencies, such as the Departments of Correction and Education, are being asked to make the hard choices, then surely Pennsylvania can get along without an elected office known as "Lieutenant Governor."

Optics certainly do matter, said Wesley Leckrone, associated professor at Widener University. When it comes to Pennsylvania, just looking at the way lieutenant governors are chosen is perplexing.

Unlike with other executive branches, such as the U.S. president and vice president, gubernatorial candidates don't chose their running mates. Instead, a host of candidates run in a separate primary election for the position, and the winners are put together on a ticket with their party's gubernatorial candidate for the general election.

"Usually when you have a ticket together chosen by a governor, there's some sort of reinforced relationship or values," Leckrone told PhillyVoice. "We're not guaranteed that with the Pennsylvania system.""

Pennsylvania's system doesn't always fail: Gov. Tom Corbett and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley were close, Leckrone notes. Wolf, however, reportedly has kept Stack at arm's length since their election in 2014.

"It's not the same relationship if the gubernatorial candidate picks," Leckrone said. "I don't understand the justification for it."

But eliminating the position altogether? Strap in for the long haul, Leckrone warns. Doing so would requiring altering the state constitution, which means votes in each chamber of the general assembly and a voter referendum. By then, the anger over Stack allegedly being a nasty boss may have subsided.

Besides, doing so could create a whole slew of unintended consequences.

If you have the president pro tempore of the senate serve as lieutenant governor, a practice used elsewhere and suggested in the PennLive editorial, you're asking them to serve in both the executive and legislative branches, a violation of the basic separation of powers, Leckrone argues.

And then what if the governor actually has to leave office? Currently, that would mean Joe Scarnati, a Republican, replacing Wolf, a Democrat, as acting governor. Even though the current governor didn't chose Stack as his running mate, at least he's of the same party and was voted into the position.

For Scarnati’s sake: Are you going to ask him to give up a long state senate tenure to serve as an unelected, acting governor? Not an ideal career move.

Ultimately, having a safety blanket makes things less complicated.

"The purpose is to have someone who's linked to the governor of the same political party to succeed the governor, should the governor resign or unfortunately pass away in office," Leckrone said.

The lack of a lieutenant governor in New Jersey caused so many headaches the state added the position in 2009.

The position's perceived unimportance, combined with the probe into Stack, certainly raises the question of whether Pennsylvania needs a second-in-command in the first place. But getting rid of it may be way more trouble than its worth, Leckrone said, adding there are better ways to send a message.

"You could reform the position and get rid of the mansion and just give him a stipend (for housing)," Leckrone said, "There are cheaper ways to go about this that make the same symbolic dig at the lieutenant governor without getting rid of the position."