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Not so fast, lawmakers say as McKee prepares to pick new RI lieutenant governor

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Will Dan McKee choose the next lieutenant governor after he ascends to the state’s top job? State lawmakers are proposing competing plans that could scramble the process and alter how vacancies are filled across leadership positions.

House Rules Committee Chairman Arthur “Doc” Corvese is pushing to fast-track legislation filed Friday morning that would authorize the General Assembly to elect the lieutenant governor whenever there is a vacancy. Lawmakers would have to convene using a joint meeting of both bodies, known as a “Grand Committee.”

If passed anytime soon, Lt. Governor McKee — who is preparing to become governor as Gov. Gina Raimondo exits midterm to join the Biden administration as U.S. commerce secretary — could lose the power to pick his own successor.

“The fact is, neither the Rhode Island Constitution nor the General Laws say what is supposed to happen if the lieutenant governor leaves office,” Corvese, D-North Providence, said in a statement.

On Friday evening, Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey revealed his own legislative package that would allow a governor to pick their own new lieutenant governor when the job becomes vacant, but only with the “advice and consent” of the House and Senate. The two bodies would vote separately, similarly to the Supreme Court appointment process, a spokesperson confirmed.

Unlike Corvese, McCaffrey wants to see the governor maintain power over the appointment of the lieutenant governor when appropriate, saying it helps to maintain strong leadership.

“The selection by the governor better positions them to work as a team on behalf of all Rhode Islanders,” McCaffrey, D-Warwick, said in a statement. “Never has it been clearer than now, during a pandemic, how important it is for the governor and lieutenant governor to work collaboratively as a team. Ideally, they should be elected a team.”

But McCaffrey also wants to take it a step further and amend the Rhode Island Constitution to require a special election for vacancies in most other major offices, including the attorney general, secretary of state and general treasurer. Currently, unplanned openings in those jobs are filled through the Grand Committee process, which is unpopular among senators.

When the two legislative bodies come together, the Senate — with 38 members — has less power than the 75-member House.

“I strongly believe that vacancies in the other general offices should be filled by the democratic will of the people not the Grand Committee, which is a relic of the past,” McCaffrey said.

Debate over lieutenant governor appointment power dates back to 1997, when then-Lt. Gov. Robert Weygand left office early after winning a seat Congress. Then-Gov. Lincoln Almond replaced the exiting Democrat with a fellow Republican, Bernard Jackvony, sparking a dispute between the governor and state Senate that went all the way to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

Eventually, the state’s highest court decided Almond was right to appoint Jackvony, but suggested the General Assembly could pass legislation giving itself such authority in the future. An ensuing attempt was made to pass legislation, but the issue again became muddled in 2004 after constitutional changes cast into question whether the Supreme Court decision was still relevant.

Corvese claims his bill would help settle the question once and for all.

“We’ve been aware of this loophole for more than two decades,” Corvese said. “It makes no sense to leave this question unanswered, particularly when there’s a simple solution that’s already established for all similar situations involving vacancy in this office. I look forward to finally addressing it now.”

Corvese has introduced the same legislation five times since 2013 with mixed success. The House approved it three times from 2013 to 2015, and each time the measure died in the Senate. Corvese also introduced it in 2016 and 2017, but failed to get it out of the House Judiciary Committee, and he didn’t try again from 2018 through 2020.

He’s nonetheless optimistic his fellow lawmakers will back him this time — with a vacancy sitting in front of them — and he already has the powerful support of the new House speaker, Joseph Shekarchi.

Shekarchi voted in favor of the bill all three times it made it to the House floor between 2013 and 2015, and has indicated he will support it again.

“The bill will go through the normal hearing process, but he still supports it,” House spokesperson Larry Berman said in an email.

How the House and Senate reconcile the differences between the two legislative proposals could play out over the next few weeks, as Raimondo will continue to serve as governor until sometime after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20. Her appointment must also be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

McKee, who has not indicated whom he would pick for lieutenant governor, is expected to be working on his transition plan over the weekend. He declined through a spokesperson to comment for this story.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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