December 21, 2014

Rascovar: Abolishing Maryland’s Lt. Governor –Part II

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Hogan Rutherford cropped

Above: Larry Hogan and Boyd Rutherford during the campaign. Photo by Glynis Kazanjian

By Barry Rascovar

For MarylandReporter.com

At a crowded holiday party last week, Boyd Rutherford introduced himself this way: “Hi, I’m the guy you want to fire.”

Indeed I do.

Rutherford gets sworn in next month as Maryland’s lieutenant governor, a toothless-tiger of a job.

He’ll have no constitutional powers. He’ll have to follow in lockstep the wishes and policies of the governor and praise the governor’s every move. He’ll be totally dependent on the governor for real work assignments.

If he irritates or alienates the governor, Rutherford better take up knitting – he’ll have lots of idle time.

Useless Appendage

Abolishing the office of lieutenant governor would save a minimum of $1 million annually. It would take a constitutional amendment (approval by the legislature and voters).

But it would be worth the time and trouble to eliminate a useless, expensive appendage of state government.

In reality, Rutherford isn’t going to be canned. He’s safely in the office for the next four years. And he’s starting off on the right foot.

Downsizing is his first move. No more press secretary littering the Internet with releases promoting the lieutenant governor as though what he does or says matters.

Indeed, Rutherford foresees a tiny staff – some policy wonks and a few secretaries or administrative assistants.

Earlier precedent

That’s a “back to the future” move.

The most successful – and influential – lieutenant governor of the modern era in Maryland was Blair Lee III. That’s because Gov. Marvin Mandel delegated budget preparation, higher education and welfare decisions to Lee, who hired two of the ablest lawyers around to man his office – Tom Downs of Anne Arundel County and Shep Abell of Montgomery County.

For other administrative chores, Lee shared staff with the governor. That’s what Rutherford intends to do, too.

Such an arrangement brought Lee closer to the governor’s inner circle and made him part of the team rather than a Lone Ranger operating with a separate cadre of staff boosters and cheerleaders.

Point of contact

Given Rutherford’s experience as a cabinet secretary, he’s likely to function more like the executive-office contact for designated departments and agencies. It’s the best way to employ the state’s new governor-in-waiting.

But if we’re not going to rid Maryland of the lieutenant governor, there is a viable option worth pursuing: abolish the office of secretary of state.

Nearly all the functions of this office can be handled by Rutherford. Why duplicate operations when we can sensibly combine functions and make government smaller yet more efficient?

Historical office

The Maryland Secretary of State is a vestige of the state’s early years when states played a role in setting foreign policy.

That’s no longer the case.

While the Maryland secretary of state may host visiting foreign dignitaries and help run Maryland’s international sister cities program, there’s no heavy lifting involved.

Why not turn over those duties to the lieutenant governor?

The secretary of state’s office contains 25 people and runs on a budget of $2.4 million.

The office “monitors and enforces the standards of law in a variety of areas, including charitable solicitations, notaries, condominiums, certifications and publication of State regulations. The office vigorously promotes Maryland’s active role in international relations.”

Among its office duties are handling executive orders; extraditions; pardons and commutations; keeping a list of people conducting business with the state; process service; commissions for special police and railroad police, and handling all matters related to the Great Seal of Maryland. Honest.

Election duties

The office also deals with a few election matters that could as easily be handled by a nonpartisan panel or the state elections board: certifying presidential primary candidates for the Maryland ballot, accepting referendum petitions, and drawing up the ballot language for referenda.

The job of this office isn’t scintillating or fraught with high significance. Why not shift all these responsibilities to the lieutenant governor?

This, too, would require voter approval, since the office is embedded in the State Constitution: “A Secretary of State shall be appointed by the Governor, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.”

The deep budget crisis Larry Hogan Jr. inherits gives him a rare opportunity to rationalize Maryland state government and in the process make it more effective.

A good early move would be to start the process of merging the secretary of state’s duties with the lieutenant governor’s, both formally and informally.

It would send the right message without igniting a partisan battle.

Barry Rascovar’s political blog is www.politicalmaryland.com He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com.