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State considers eliminating job of lieutenant governor

Illinois Lt. Gov. SheilSimdelivers her 2011  inaugural speech during ceremonies Springfield.  (AP Photo/Seth Perlman File)

Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon delivers her 2011 inaugural speech during ceremonies in Springfield. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

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Updated: May 15, 2013 6:56AM

SPRINGFIELD-Four Illinois lieutenant governors during the state’s 195-year history have quit in mid-term, and one, in so doing, declared the job so boring that anyone of “average” intelligence could master its duties in a week.

But the office has remained untouched until now, when a new and unexpected debate over its usefulness sprung up in Springfield as the Illinois House voted overwhelmingly to ask voters next year to mothball it.

Eliminating the lieutenant governor’s nearly $2 million annual budget would send an important symbolic message to voters that lawmakers are serious about austerity at a time of unprecedented fiscal calamity in state government, a top backer of the abolition movement said.

“I believe it’s a luxury we can’t afford,” said state Rep. David McSweeney (R-Barrington Hills), the bill’s chief House sponsor. “With $9 billion of unpaid bills and the poor financial condition of this state, we don’t need a lieutenant governor anymore.”

But not everyone is as down on the importance of having what is known in statehouse vernacular as the “lite gov.” Gov. Pat Quinn — who held the post himself — former Gov. James Thompson and another past Illinois lieutenant governor all signaled to the Chicago Sun-Times that the office is worth saving.

“I think it truly does make a difference,” said former Republican Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood, who served from 1999 to 2003 and used the job to promote breast-cancer research, clean up Illinois’ rivers and encourage economic development. “I’d be proud to put my record up next to anyone for everyone to see.

“I believe the General Assembly has a lot better things to do than to be wasting time on something like this when they’re looking at billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities,” the Lake Forest Republican told the Chicago Sun-Times.

On Thursday, McSweeney led a successful push to get the constitutional amendment out of the Illinois House, which voted 83-28 to send the measure to the Senate. It needed 71 votes to pass the House and even drew backing from House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).

Under the freshman lawmaker’s plan, voters would elect a lieutenant governor one more time — in 2014. But beginning in 2019, the job would be eliminated entirely, and the attorney general, rather than lieutenant governor, would be next in line for the Executive Mansion if the governor died, resigned or left office early for any other reason.

If it passes the Senate, the bid to change the state Constitution would go to voters on the fall 2014 ballot and need backing from 60-percent of those voting on the measure or from a majority voting in the entire election.

And if approved by voters, Illinois would join only Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, West Virginia and Wyoming as states not having lieutenant governors.

The timing of the constitutional amendment is curious considering that Quinn, who was lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2009, rose to his current perch of power when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and driven from office.

“The governor feels this is a good office that can be very productive for the people of Illinois and raise and drive action on important issues that are often overlooked,” said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson, who said the governor opposes abolishing the office.

Yet, the idea seems to have undeniable momentum in the Capitol. It amounts to low-hanging political fruit in which supporters can show voters they’re serious about getting rid of costly and inefficient government programs.

As of Friday, 24 of the Senate’s 59 members had signed on as co-sponsors, and Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) signaled a willingness to consider the idea that must be approved by his chamber by May 2014 in order to go to voters next year.

“There’s no rush toward action over here. That said, Cullerton does think this is something that needs to be looked at. It’s something that could come up over the next year,” Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon told the Sun-Times.

“He thinks there are some valid arguments for it, but he needs to take the time to review it,” she said.

Since 1973, constitutional amendments abolishing the lieutenant governor’s post were proposed at least nine times, but none of them advanced as far as McSweeney’s plan Thursday.

Including Quinn’s 2009 ascension to governor, six lieutenant governors have gone on to become the state’s chief executive since 1818. Before Quinn, the last time it happened was in May 1968 when former Lt. Gov. Samuel Shapiro succeeded Gov. Otto Kerner, who stepped down as governor for a federal judgeship on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The roster of lieutenant governors is salted with mostly forgotten political figures. Yet, in recent political memory, a few used the office as a stepping stone to become household names in Illinois such as Quinn, U.S. Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and former Gov. George Ryan.

Former Gov. Thompson, who picked Ryan as his two-term running mate in the 1980s, said he thinks the post should be preserved because it offers an orderly transition of power that would not otherwise exist under McSweeney’s model of making the attorney general next in line of succession.

“It works,” Thompson told the Sun-Times. “I think we ought to keep it because if you don’t have it and something happens to the governor, it goes to the attorney general, who may be of a different party.”

Thompson said Ryan, who had been a Kankakee County Board member, state legislator and House speaker, represented the prototype of an effective lieutenant governor because he “understood politics, and he could bring people to a cause.” (Thompson’s law firm went on to defend Ryan in his federal corruption trial.)

If Ryan was a force as lieutenant governor, another Thompson running mate, former Lt. Gov. Dave O’Neal, stands to this day as the face of why the office may not need exist.

A former St. Clair County sheriff and Downstate Belleville pharmacist, O’Neal served as lieutenant governor under Thompson from 1977 to 1979, but quit near the end of their first term together, saying he felt confined, bored and frustrated by how the Constitution limited what impact the lieutenant governor could have short of possibly assuming the governor’s office.

“A person of average intelligence can learn it in a week,” O’Neal said at the time, deriding the office as a “wasted resource” in state government.

“George clearly knew people from around the state. Here’s a guy who had been a county board member. He knew county board government. Been a state rep. Knew the legislative process. He’d been the speaker. So he’d held a leadership position. O’Neal came from a sheriff’s job. So the backgrounds were different. George was much more ready, I think, to undertake assignments that maybe Dave wasn’t able to undertake,” said Thompson, who said he has lost touch with O’Neal.

An Arizona telephone number tied to O’Neal has been disconnected.

A later O’Neal successor, former Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra, carried similar disdain for the office when he served under former Gov. Jim Edgar and made state history when he was the first lieutenant governor to quit the job twice.

Three months after winning re-nomination to a second term in 1994, Kustra announced his resignation after signing a contract to host a Chicago radio talk show. But Kustra changed his plans after Edgar had heart surgery later that year, opting to stay until July 1998 after failing in a 1996 U.S. Senate bid.

Kustra, president of Boise State University, did not return a message left at his office Friday.

The current officeholder, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, hasn’t openly expressed any frustrations with her job but let Quinn know last December she doesn’t intend to run with him for a second term.

Her office positioned itself as being neutral on McSweeney’s legislation because she favors letting voters express themselves via referendum. Still, she has vouched for the role the lieutenant governor plays in state government, including her own accomplishments in the job.

“The lieutenant governor is the only administration officer the governor cannot fire and can be counted on to serve as an independent advisor,” said Simon, who is paid $137,200 annually.

Wood urged lawmakers should keep the office and questioned the timing of McSweeney’s abolition push, particularly since the lieutenant governor’s post proved its worth after Blagojevich’s December 2008 arrest and his ouster from office a month later.

“I think it’s ironic when you have a sitting governor ascend to that office because of Rod Blagojevich’s federal felonies, which proves the point there can be a reasonable transition. Yes, it’s a little ironic. But this legislation has been brought up year after year. They should save the paper,” Wood said of the General Assembly, “and get down to saving our state.”

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