Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little would be the last one to complain about his working conditions, so let me do the complaining.
He deserves better. Little has the qualifications and brains to serve in any office – including governor, or any position in Congress. Yet his annual salary is $42,600, which is below the going rate for a lot of state office staff workers (including his own).
Of course, there’s no need to get too carried away with his plight. Lieutenant governor is a stepping stone. Butch Otter went from there, to Congress, then to the governorship. Jim Risch went to the governorship, then to the U.S. Senate. Little remains an early favorite to win the governor’s office in two years.
But the job itself is a waste of incredible talent. One duty is to preside over the Senate, which people such as David Leroy and John Evans were practically able to do in their sleep. Another duty is to preside as governor while the “real” governor is out of state – which is another snore-fest. A third duty is to serve at the governor’s pleasure, which can range from nothing to a full plate – depending on the relationship between the governor and his lieutenant.
What I’d like to see is a lieutenant governor with a more defined job, and a title to go with it. And it can be done without uprooting the state’s constitution. An Idaho lieutenant governor could be the director of the Idaho Department of Commerce – a title that Indiana’s lieutenant governor held when I lived there 20 years ago.
Such an assignment wouldn’t be a big stretch for Little, since he spends much of his waking hours promoting commerce and economic development anyway. This is no knock against the current director, Megan Ronk, who knows every aspect of the department operations. But she’s hardly a household name. Little is well known, which would be of particular help in international dealings – where titles and power often mean a lot.
I liked the arrangement in Indiana, because it brought a greater level of accountability to the administration in power. Governors everywhere are elected, or booted out, according to what happens with economic development. With a lieutenant governor in charge of the Department of Commerce, there’s no question about who gets credit for success, or blame for failure. It provided some added political octane in a two-party state.
The arrangement works best when lieutenant governors run on the same ticket as the governor, which is the case in Indiana. In Idaho, it’s possible for a governor and lieutenant governor to be with different parties, but that hasn’t been the case in decades. On rare occasions when they don’t, or happen to be in different political parties, a governor would not be obligated to name the lieutenant governor as a department director. But when the fit is good, such as with Otter-Little, then the concept would be plausible – if not desirable.
Leroy, for one, thinks the idea could work in Idaho. Although he and Evans were not in the same party, they found some common ground in economic development.
“When I went into the office, I gave him (Evans) a list of things I wanted to do. He took note of my polite approach, but basically patted me on the head and sent me back to my office,” Leroy recalled. “About two weeks later, the time he was leaving the state, he realized I would be the acting governor. So I came back with about a dozen things I wanted accomplish, including business promotion, which is part of the primary portfolio of the modern lieutenant governor.”
Gov. Cecil Andrus created the Department of Commerce in the 1980s, but his only realistic hope for pulling that off was naming a Republican, Jim Hawkins, as the first director. Hawkins was not your normal Republican; he was more like a pom-pom-waving cheerleader for Idaho, which is what the department needed at the time. Otter could have done the job as well, as could most other lieutenant governors over the last 50 years.
All that’s needed to get it done is political will – and a serious upgrade in the salary structure, of course.