By Phill Brooks
This spring Missouri lost a man who played a leading role in changing the powers of the lieutenant governor. Bill Phelps who died in March, got the nickname "full time" because the central theme of his 1972 campaign for lieutenant governor was to work full time.
The prior lieutenant governor treated it as a part-time job. There's really not much for a lieutenant governor to do except to be prepared to take over in case of disability or death of the governor.
While Missouri's Constitution gives the lieutenant governor some limited Senate tasks, they don't amount to much. The lieutenant governor can cast the deciding vote to break a tie and can participate in debates when the Senate meets as a committee of the whole. But tie votes and committee-of-the-whole sessions are rare.
Finally, the state Constitution makes the lieutenant governor the "ex officio president" of the Senate. But that does not mean much either. Decades ago, Senate rules stripped the lieutenant governor from any real executive powers in the chamber such as assigning bills to committee.
In the face of the Senate's clear desire to control its own affairs, lieutenant governors limited their appearances in the Senate, usually just opening the day's session and then quietly departing. But that changed when Republican Phelps sought to be a full-time presiding officer over the Democratic-controlled Senate.
It came to a head in 1973. When the Senate returned from a lunch break, Phelps discovered that Senate President Pro Tem Bill Cason, D-Clinton, had ordered staff to block the lieutenant governor from access to the chamber.
Only senators, staff and reporters were allowed to enter. Because Cason refused to leave the chamber to explain his action to reporters, I decided to let nature take its course. Sure enough, Cason eventually left the chamber to relieve himself in the Senate's adjoining restroom.
Cason readily agreed to my restroom broadcast interview as he stood next to a urinal defending Senate prerogatives to control its own business. Also that day, Phelps filed a petition with the Missouri Supreme Court seeking access to the chamber so he could preside.
He ultimately won. In a decision delivered the following year, the court upheld that he was the Senate's presiding officer. But the court did not define what powers he had as a presiding officer.
Phelps sought clarification, despite advice from senior Republican senators to just declare victory. As his colleagues warned, the court subsequently upheld Senate rules that restricted his powers.
Seventeen years later, the Supreme Court struck another blow to the lieutenant governor's powers. The court's decision involved the consitiutional provision that: "On the failure to qualify, absence from the state or other disability of the governor, the powers, duties and emoluments of the governor shall devolve upon the lieutenant governor."
Before the court were conflicting gubernatorial documents and appointments signed by both Democratic Lt. Gov. Mel Carnahan and Republican Gov. John Ashcroft while he was out of the state. In a unanimous decision, the court concluded that the provision disqualifying a governor went back more than a century when instant communication from another state was not possible and, thus, a disability to govern.
Essentially, the court nullfied the consitutional provision because modern communications technologies no longer make being out-of-state a governing disability. But before this case, I got a very different explanation for that provision from Sen. Richard Webster, R-Carthage.
Webster said a member of the constitutional convention that wrote the state's current constitution in the 1940s told him the real objective for stripping the governor's powers and salary while out of the state was to impose a penalty for leaving Missouri.
Webster said he told him there was frustration at the growing number of national and regional organizations holding meetings outside Missouri that governors were attending.
In fact, the 1990 two-week state absence of Ashcroft that was the subject of the Supreme Court case included attending a meeting of the National Governor's Association.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.
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