Time to rethink whether Massachusetts needs a lieutenant governor

When it comes to compensating its public officials, Massachusetts is anything but a penny pincher. And this generosity is most amply expressed in the $60,000 annual salary for a lieutenant governor.

While that paycheck is less than those for some other state employees, there is little to suggest the job is very demanding. Some lieutenant governors make more of the office than do others, and incumbent John F. Kerry may be one of the most successful.

During the past 13 months, his responsibilities within the administration of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis have been, for the most part, to direct state-federal relations and to assist in the shaping of anticrime programs.

To what extent this might change now that Mr. Kerry has launched his candidacy for US Senate is uncertain, despite his insistence that his campaign will not interfere with his current responsibilities.

Regardless of whether he wins the race, the possibility of a vacancy in the second-highest rung on the Massachusetts elective ladder again raises the question: Does the Bay State really need a lieutenant governor?

Kerry's decision to try to move on to Washington may underscore an attitude that the lieutenant governorship is not essential. If he is successful, his Beacon Hill niche would be unoccupied for two years beginning next January.

Under the state constitution, no provision is made for filling a vacancy in the office of lieutenant governor. By contrast, there are arrangements to take care of midterm openings in all other state elective posts.

Why Massachusetts' founding fathers decided to leave things that way is unclear. However, the reason might be they felt the lieutenant governor's post was not that important a job. This is also suggested by the limited role for lieutenant governor built into the state constitution.

Beyond ascending to the governorship (if the executive chair becomes vacant) and presiding at meetings of the Governor's Council, there are no specified responsibilities.

Governor Dukakis, unlike some of his predecessors, has recognized the need to make use of his lieutenant governor. During his first four-year term as head of state, from 1975 to 1978, he assigned Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill III to handle the administration's relations with the federal government. Mr. O'Neill also sat on the gubernatorial cabinet.

Dukakis's successor, Gov. Edward J. King, continued part of that arrangement for a while. However, O'Neill's role faded as Mr. King put his own people in charge of state relations with federal agencies.

Kerry's role in the current administration is similar to O'Neill's in the first Dukakis regime. Kerry shares Dukakis's liberal politics, and there is no hint of philosophical differences between them. But if a conservative, even though a fellow-Democrat, were serving as Dukakis's lieutenant governor, it's unlikely the delegated responsibilities would include more than an occasional ribbon-cutting.

Clearly, the commonwealth needs to provide, by constitutional amendment or by statute, specific ongoing responsibilities for a lieutenant governor, regardless of that official's political leanings.

One duty could be to serve as presiding officer in the state Senate, as does the Vice-President of the United States in the US Senate. Such a responsibility would give a lieutenant governor a raison d'etre and would help future officeholders keep from whiling away their time perfecting thumb-twiddling.

From the taxpayers' standpoint, perhaps a better idea is to eliminate the office altogether. At the very least, that would save the $60,000 salary. In addition, the budget for that office is almost $800,000 for the year ending June 30, and may top the $1.1 million mark in fiscal 1985, the 12-month cycle that begins July 1.

While the $1.1 million for the lieutenant governor's operation is dwarfed by the $8.1 billion overall state budget proposed by Governor Dukakis, it is not an insignificant sum. Certainly there are more essential areas of state government - such as human services, environmental protection, and education - where every dime could be put to good use.

In 1969, when Gov. John A. Volpe left Massachusetts to join the Cabinet of President Nixon, Lt. Gov. Francis W. Sargent moved up to the governorship. And the commonwealth got along nicely for two years without a lieutenant governor.

Also of note is the fact that eight states, including neighboring Maine and New Hampshire as well as New Jersey, which is comparable to Massachusetts in population, do not have lieutenant governors. The state Senate president is next in line to become chief executive.

Surely that arrangement would prove as satisfactory as the current setup. Eliminating an elective office, especially one with a top-notch salary and few mandated responsibilities, would not be easy. Yet in the interest of improving state government, especially the executive branch, it seems appropriate to consider such a move.

The best approach might be for the governor to appoint a broad-based, unpaid, task force - comprising representatives of various civic groups and political scientists from colleges around the state - to examine the possibility of strengthening or ending the office of lieutenant governor.

Such a panel should include Kerry, plus former governors and lieutenant governors, of whom there is no shortage.

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