Martin Dyckman

Rethink Florida's No. 2

Florida made do for 80 years without a lieutenant governor. That comes to some minds with the news that incumbent Jeff Kottkamp has been costing taxpayers a lot of money to do even less visible work than, say, Prince Charles. Is it time to abolish the office, as one newspaper columnist suggested last week, and revert to the Senate president as successor?

That idea neglects the reason why Florida reinstated the office of lieutenant governor in the constitution of 1968. When young Gov. Dan McCarty died of heart failure in 1953, Charley Johns of Starke was the Senate president. He was rural and reactionary, a typical member of the Senate's ruling "Pork Chop Gang." Had LeRoy Collins not defeated Johns in 1954 for the remainder of McCarty's term, Florida's subsequent racial history would likely have been as turbulent as Mississippi's or Alabama's. Back in the Senate, Johns voted for legislation to close desegregated schools. Collins vetoed it. Johns also led an infamous committee that ransacked the universities for "subversives" and homosexuals.

Reapportionment did away with the Pork Chop Gang but not with the problem that the Senate president owes his or her seat to only one-fortieth of the state's voters and the excessive powers of the presidency itself to only a majority of the majority party, which could be as few as 11 senators. Although recent Senates have not chosen as poorly as the House did with Speakers Tom Feeney and Johnnie Byrd, nothing guarantees that a Senate president's experience, philosophy, qualifications or political party will match those that the voters preferred for governor.

A more plausible alternative would be to designate a Cabinet member, either the attorney general or the chief financial officer, as the successor to a governor who departs prematurely. Cabinet members are elected statewide. (I do not suggest the agriculture commissioner because nobody but agribusiness seems to care about that office.) Still, a Cabinet member is less likely to be on the same political page as the governor and lieutenant governor.

The real issue is to make better use of the lieutenant governor. There can be more to it than ribbon-cutting. The law permits him or her to head any of the governor's departments without Senate confirmation (or additional salary).

Reubin Askew's marriage of convenience with his first lieutenant governor, Tom Adams, turned out badly when Adams, occupied with his full-time duties running the Commerce Department, used one of its employees to manage his private farm. Adams was nearly impeached for that and the Senate — but not the House — voted to abolish his office.

For his second term, Askew chose Jim Williams, a highly regarded state senator from Ocala, who served splendidly as secretary of administration, overseeing the budget and personnel. There was no more talk of doing without a lieutenant governor.

Similarly, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, who had succeeded Williams in the state Senate before going on to Congress, served with distinction as Gov. Lawton Chiles's trouble-shooter-in-chief. Nobody ever had cause to say he was not earning his salary or overspending on travel, and when Chiles died during the last month of his term Floridians knew the office remained in good hands.

In other words, it is the governor who is responsible for whether the lieutenant governor is worth nearly $350,000 a year in salary and travel expenses. As Charlie Crist's skin seems to be made of Teflon, the voters will probably forgive him this, too. But let them at least remember it the next time they elect a new governor.

Martin Dyckman, a retired Times associate editor, is author of Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins, published by the University Press of Florida.

Rethink Florida's No. 2 02/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 16, 2009 6:53pm]

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