No definitive answer will be immediately forthcoming on how Missouri replaces a lieutenant governor who leaves office partway through a term.
Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed legislation this past week that would have required a new lieutenant governor be selected during the next general election while an aide for the departing officeholder handles ministerial duties in the meantime. Under the vetoed bill, the lieutenant governor’s responsibilities as Senate president were to be handled by the Senate president pro tem, who is a state senator.
Nixon said it “would have created a confusing and untenable process for filling the vacancy in the office of lieutenant governor” while turning over constitutional responsibilities to a “vaguely defined staff member.” He said there would be ambiguity and confusion.
The veto means no definitive answer to a question that reverberated around the Missouri Capitol early this year as Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder sought the Republican nomination to replace U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who resigned from Congress in January. Urgency to resolve the query dissipated after Kinder did not win the GOP nomination. Nixon’s veto was the issue’s final fizzle.
Jason Smith, who now represents southeastern Missouri in Congress after winning a special election to succeed Emerson, sponsored the lieutenant governor measure in the Missouri Legislature. He criticized the veto Friday.
“It’s a shame that Gov. Nixon continues to claim power for himself instead of allowing Missouri voters a voice,” said Smith, a Republican. “If the lieutenant governor’s office has a vacancy, voters should be able to elect a new lieutenant governor – that’s how a Democracy works.”
Nixon, a Democrat, cited several concerns in a three-page veto message. He said the legislation called for the departing lieutenant governor’s “chief administrative assistant” to handle the ministerial duties but does not define “ministerial duties” nor does it spell out the process for identifying the aide and formally appointing him or her. The governor also questioned whether an unelected staff member should replace a statewide elected official. He said it could be an even bigger issue if the lieutenant governor vacancy arises from a criminal investigation involving the office or an impeachment.
In addition, Nixon said the measure called for a general election but did not authorize a primary. He said that means political parties would have selected nominees and not voters.
The Missouri lieutenant governor runs for office separately from the governor. The lieutenant governor presides over the 34-member Senate while breaking tie votes, advocates for seniors and military veterans, serves on several state commissions and takes over if the governor must be replaced.
Missouri law allows the governor to appoint a replacement if the secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, auditor or a U.S. senator leaves office. But there has been disagreement about how the lieutenant governor should be succeeded.
Nixon said earlier this year that he has authority to appoint a replacement and pointed to history. Republican legislative leaders said the governor cannot appoint the lieutenant governor.
The most recent lieutenant governor vacancy arose in 2000 when Democratic Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson became governor after the death of Mel Carnahan. After the election that year, Wilson appointed just-elected Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell to start early.
Democratic Gov. Warren Hearnes in 1969 appointed just-elected Lt. Gov. William S. Morris to fill the remainder of Thomas Eagleton’s term after Eagleton left for the U.S. Senate before his term ended. However, the state Senate leader refused to recognize the appointment, called it illegal and threatened to throw Morris out of the chamber if he came to preside. Morris ultimately waited until his elected term began.
State records also seem to indicate that after Lt. Gov. Wilson Brown died in August 1855 partway through his term, the office remained vacant until after the 1856 election.