It’s been well understood since statehood that our Constitution plainly says that when the governor is out of state, he no longer exercises the power of the office. That power moves to the lieutenant governor until the governor returns. The wording of the state Constitution has never been in doubt. Its clarity is such that one need not be a lawyer to know this is true. Until now.
The Constitution reads: "In case of the … his absence from the state … the powers, duties and emoluments of the office for the residue of the term, or until the disability shall cease, shall devolve upon the lieutenant governor.”
But now, state elected officials and the legacy news media are twisting themselves and the plain wording of our constitution into a pretzel to justify the nullification of the Constitution by redefining the word “absence.” The point of this blatant attack on our Constitution is an attempt to deny Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin her constitutional authority. Twice this year when the governor was outside the state’s borders, McGeachin lawfully fulfilled the duties as acting governor.
But Gov. Brad Little, armed with legal advice from the office of Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, now contends, essentially, that the governor really isn’t absent from the state so long as he has Idaho on his mind, I suppose in a Ray Charles kind of way. Chief Deputy AG Brian Kane wrote an analysis that concludes, “Given the technologies available in this day and age, there is no impediment to the governor performing his duties remotely.” In other words, he’s never really absent so long as he’s got a good Wifi connection.
Yet the wording of the Constitution was clear enough in 1987 when the then-Lt. Gov. Butch Otter vetoed a bill to raise the state’s drinking age while the governor was out of state. No one at that time even gave a thought to the possibility that maybe the governor, Cecil Andrus, wasn’t really absent from the state while he was away on business. And no one in the media or anywhere for that matter argued that the existence of the telephone meant that the governor really was just a phone call away.
The reality that an Idaho lieutenant governor becomes governor when the governor is out of state is not just an Idaho thing either. Arkansas had a similar constitutional provision. And, even in the modern era, lieutenant governors were exercising the full legal authority of that office while the governor was out of state, including in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was out of the state a lot to campaign for president. That’s right. Even Bill Clinton, the man who gave us “it depends on what your definition of the word is is” did not dare argue he retained the power of the governorship while he was outside of the state. And, for Arkansas, it was a fact of life, up until 2015, when Arkansans ratified a constitutional amendment to ensure that when the governor is away from the state, he retained the authority granted the office.
There’s a legitimate reason for Idaho voters to consider making that change, given that technology allows the governor to govern from virtually anywhere in the world. At the same time, a voter might not like the idea of a future governor governing the state of Idaho from his second home in Arizona, even if such an arrangement is temporary.
But that’s a question for voters to decide. Not Brad Little. Not Lawrence Wasden or his deputies. Until then, the governor should simply follow the law, and if he can’t do that, maybe he shouldn’t travel out of state so much.
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