If you can’t name the responsibilities of the lieutenant governor, don’t feel bad.
Even the people running for the job disagree about what Washington’s No. 2 statewide elected official can and can’t do.
That dispute boiled over last week as several people in the race accused one candidate — state Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Bellevue — of proposing actions they said were outside the realm of a lieutenant governor’s authority.
In particular, a few of the candidates objected to Habib’s statement that he might declare a bill unconstitutional and refuse to sign it if he thinks it conflicts with a prior court ruling.
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Habib, a first-term senator who served two years in the state House, said he might take that course of action if the Legislature passes a budget that doesn’t comply with the state Supreme Court’s orders to fully fund public schools, for instance.
Doing so could hold up the legislation on its way to the governor’s desk, since the lieutenant governor — who serves as president of the state Senate — is charged with signing bills to confirm they passed the Legislature’s upper chamber.
“The lieutenant governor’s role is to rule on constitutional procedural matters, not substantive (ones),” said state Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia and one of Habib’s rivals in the race for lieutenant governor. “The lieutenant governor would never get away with not signing or with blocking a bill from going to the governor.”
The lieutenant governor’s role is to rule on constitutional procedural matters, not substantive (ones).
State Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, a candidate for lieutenant governor
Habib now says that his refusal to sign a bill he deems unconstitutional would be mainly symbolic, because the Senate could vote to override his rulings, and a substitute Senate president — the president pro tempore — could step in to sign bills instead.
But the debate on the proper role of the lieutenant governor highlights how the candidates are working to distinguish themselves from retiring Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who has held the position for two decades, as well as from each other in what is tied for being the most crowded statewide race on the ballot this year.
For example, State Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens said that as lieutenant governor he would want to assume a larger role in the state’s emergency management system, as well as act as a negotiator to help resolve political impasses between Republicans and Democrats.
On the Republican side, University Place City Councilman Javier Figueroa said he would use the office as a microphone to speak out on political issues more than Owen has, while focusing on helping small businesses throughout the state. His fellow Republican, Phillip Yin, a former TV journalist with a business background, also wants to focus on creating jobs, in part by building relationships with overseas investors to bring employment opportunities to Washington.
Fraser, meanwhile, would help highlight the importance of education and civil rights to growing the economy, she said, while using her lengthy experience in the Senate to help her maintain order in the chamber.
What I have said is, if I felt strongly the constitution were being violated, I personally wouldn’t sign off on it.
State Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Bellevue, candidate for lieutenant governor
Habib, for his part, says that the lieutenant governor should do more than wield a gavel. He said he doesn’t think that’s the only duty the drafters of Washington’s constitution had in mind when they made the job a statewide elected office, as opposed to an in internally appointed leadership position like the speaker of the House.
“I think it was done to allow for a level of independence and for someone to hold the Legislature and the Senate in particular accountable to the constitution and the rules and statutes of the state,” Habib said. “So I am prepared to do that.”
Traditionally, the lieutenant governor’s job consists mainly of presiding over the state Senate while the Legislature is in session, as well as leading the state when the governor is away. It also involves chairing a legislative committee on economic development and international relations.
State law doesn’t say much else about what the lieutenant governor is supposed to do. That leaves substantial room for the people who enter the job to shape it as they see fit, said Owen, who was first elected to the position in 1996.
The lieutenant governor’s job consists mainly of presiding over the state Senate while the Legislature is in session, as well as leading the state when the governor is away.
“They should look at doing things that match their goals and their personalities,” Owen said last week. “That’s the beauty of the job — it allows you to do that.”
Still, Owen said he doesn’t agree with Habib’s approach, and urged him in a letter last week to tone down his rhetoric on the campaign trail.
Hugh Spitzer, a constitutional law professor at the University of Washington, said there is some danger in having a lieutenant governor make rulings on constitutionality, because his or her successor could easily rule in a different way that creates confusion about the law.
Honestly it should be closer to a nonpartisan role. Your job is to ensure that there is a healthy dialogue so you can get good bills passed by your fellow senators.
Phillip Yin, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor
At the same time, “the lieutenant governor has a little wiggle room in terms of what he or she allows to go through or not,” he said.
“If a budget bill were in direct violation of a court order, I could see how a lieutenant governor’s refusal to sign the bill could be appropriate,” he said.
Even if it’s legal, Yin said he thinks a lieutenant governor ruling on bill’s constitutionality or withholding his or her signature could create uproar in the Senate, interfering with lawmakers’ ability to get work done.
“Honestly it should be closer to a nonpartisan role,” Yin said. “Your job is to ensure that there is a healthy dialogue so you can get good bills passed by your fellow senators.”
While Owen occasionally has made constitutional rulings, those have often been procedural in nature, such as deciding whether a proposed amendment would violate a constitutional provision requiring legislation to have a single subject, or determining whether a bill received enough votes to pass.
Hobbs and Fraser said Owen’s model is one they would follow if elected to the position.
My philosophy of presiding will be to carry on the role of the previous lieutenant governors with civility and impartiality.
State Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, candidate for lieutenant governor
“My philosophy of presiding will be to carry on the role of the previous lieutenant governors with civility and impartiality,” Hobbs said. “I think when you make rulings simply on your own partisan beliefs, it’s very dangerous.”
Habib, a lawyer who teaches legislative procedure at Seattle University, said he would rule on a bill’s constitutionality only if a senator raised a challenge during a floor debate. If he found the measure unconstitutional, but a majority of senators voted to override his ruling, he would then not sign the legislation on principle, letting the Senate president pro tempore do it instead.
“What I have said is, if I felt strongly the constitution were being violated, I personally wouldn’t sign off on it,” Habib said.
Spitzer said if lawmakers don’t like how the lieutenant governor is presiding, there’s an easy remedy: eliminating the office entirely.
The office of lieutenant governor is one of three statewide elected positions that can be axed by the Legislature, along with the commissioner of public lands and the state auditor, according to the state constitution.
“If people didn’t like it, they could abolish the office,” Spitzer said. “That could take care of the problem.”
Habib has raised more money than any other candidate in the lieutenant governor’s race, with nearly $610,000 in donations. Hobbs has raised about $345,000, followed by Yin with roughly $152,000, Fraser with $143,000, and Figueroa with $42,000.
Other candidates running for lieutenant governor have raised less than $10,000 so far, including Republican Marty McClendon, Libertarian Paul Addis, Republican Bill Penor, Democrat Karen Wallace, and third-party candidates Mark Greene and Daniel Davies.
The two candidates who win the most votes in an Aug. 2 primary election will advance to the general election on Nov. 8. The position comes with a salary of $101,889 per year.