Help wanted: Missouri needs a new lieutenant governor

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson The Associated Press

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson says he may call a special session of the General Assembly to fill the now-vacant position of lieutenant governor. That’s the post he held prior to becoming governor last week when Eric Greitens resigned.

Filling the state’s No. 2 job may not seem like a top priority. But if Parson, a Republican, wants the position filled as he assumes the task of governing the nation’s 18th-largest state, lawmakers should cooperate.

“It needs to be done. I don’t like the state of Missouri being without a lieutenant governor,” Parson said.

As he started his first full week on the job, Parson told reporters he has plans for his successor. The new lieutenant governor could be helpful to the state’s new chief executive.

“I aim to use that position to help with this transition,” he said. “If there’s ever a time those two offices need to be working together, it’s now.”

Parson has reason to consider the formal line of succession should anything happen to him. In 2016, shortly after his election as lieutenant governor, Parson underwent open-heart surgery.

“They got him down to the hospital in Springfield and they said, ‘You’ve got to have this, and you’ve got to have it now,’” state Rep. Mike Stephens, a Republican from Bolivar, told The Star.

By all accounts, Parson bounced back quickly and was able to assume his duties as the state’s second-in-command. Still, open-heart surgery has a certain effect on people.

Turns out a behind-the-scenes debate in the state capital is raging over whether the governor even has the authority to appoint a lieutenant governor should a vacancy occur. Among those disagreeing are two former top lawyers for Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan: Mike Wolff and Joe Bednar.

Wolff maintains that state law specifically excludes the lieutenant governor from positions the governor can fill. But Bednar insists the constitution calls for the position to be filled, and the governor is the person to do it.

There is something of a precedent here. In 2000, after Carnahan was killed in a plane crash, Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson moved up and appointed Joe Maxwell, who had been elected lieutenant governor that year, to start his term two months early.

Lawmakers have come close to settling this issue before. In 2013, legislators passed a bill that called for the election of a new lieutenant governor in the event of an opening. But then-Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed it because of what he called a “confusing and untenable process for filling the vacancy” as spelled out in the bill. An aide to the departing lieutenant governor would have been placed in charge of handling the office’s ministerial duties until the new official was elected.

This year, the state Senate passed a bill that offered a much simpler method that we’d like to see passed in a special session. The Senate legislation called for the governor to appoint a new lieutenant governor with Senate consent. It makes sense: The lieutenant governor presides over Senate debates and breaks tie votes.

The House rejected the plan, but recent developments may spur new thinking.

Something needs to be done. Given the strong feelings here, lawmakers should pass a new law in a special session if Parson calls one. That will clear up any disagreement over how to proceed.