When the Governor is away – Saying goodbye to a history of shenanigans

When the Governor is away – Saying goodbye to a history of shenanigans
by David Ferguson

I don’t have much good to say about the Constitutional Amendments proposed by the legislature, with one exception. Issue 2 made a good change in the Arkansas Constitution to say the Governor retains his powers when he leaves the state.

The amendment ended shenanigans that sometimes happened when a governor was out of state.  What kind of shenanigans? In the past, when a governor was out of state there have been: appointments made, legislation signed, and even pardons.

Until Issue 2 passed, when the Governor left the state for any reason, the Lieutenant Governor became the acting Governor until the Governor returned.  If both the Governor and Lieutenant Governor were out of state at the same time, then the President Pro Tempore of the Senate became acting Governor.  And if all three were out of state then the Speaker of the House became acting Governor.

When the Arkansas Constitution was adopted in 1874 this provision made sense because of the difficulty in travel and communication.  Those days have been gone for a long time.

Normally, becoming acting Governor for a day or two was merely an opportunity to sit in the Governor’s big chair and to have some commemorative photos taken.  But sometimes the acting Governor would dare to take official actions, much to the frustration of the Governor.

NICK WILSON – In 1987, Governor Bill Clinton and Lieutenant Governor Winston Bryant were both out of state.  This meant President Pro Tempore of the Senate Nick Wilson served as Governor until one returned.  Wilson decided to have some fun and cause a bit of mischief.

Wilson prepared a stack of certificates of recognition signed by him as Governor and awarded the certificates to a number of people.  I still have the certificate Wilson gave me.

Wilson then demoted Clinton’s Chief of Staff Betsy Wright. Obviously, she was not going to lose her job since Governor Clinton would be back.  It was just an act of mischief for Wilson’s amusement and for the amusement of those who found Wright difficult to get along with.  Governor Clinton was probably not amused.

Then Wilson used the opportunity to exercise the powers of the Governor by making appointments. One appointment was to the Board of Trustees of Arkansas State University. Obviously, the Clinton administration was upset and embarrassed, but Wilson had had his fun.

JERRY JEWELL – In 1993, Governor Jim Guy Tucker was out of state to attend President Clinton’s inauguration. Tucker had been Lieutenant Governor and became Governor when Clinton was elected President, so there was no Lieutenant Governor.  That meant the President Pro Tempore of the Senate Jerry Jewell became acting Governor when Tucker left the state.

When Nick Wilson had been acting Governor, he had some fun and caused a little mischief.  Jerry Jewell’s service as acting Governor was very different. Jewell took very serious and highly controversial actions.

Jewell to the exceptional step of exercising the Governor’s power to grant pardons and clemency.  He pardoned two people and gave clemency to three others.  The most talked about was his pardon of Tommy McIntosh (son of Robert “Say” McIntosh).  Tommy McIntosh had been sentenced to fifty years for drug charges.

The huge controversy caused the legislature to scramble to try to come up with procedures that would keep future acting Governors from exercising the power of pardons and clemency.  Jewell was defeated for reelection.

MARK DARR – In 2013, Governor Mike Beebe left the state to attend a national conference and to meet with the Obama administration as part of his effort to get Arkansas to join the ranks of the Obamacare Medicaid Expansion states. Lieutenant Governor Mark Darr was acting Governor while Beebe was out of state. The two were from different political parties – Beebe, a Democrat, and Darr, a Republican.

Darr used the power of the office to sign a bill into law to block disclosure of the identities of people having a concealed weapon permit. Beebe wasn’t going to veto the bill, but he was going to let the bill sit on his desk until it became law after five days. Governor Beebe was upset by Darr’s action, calling it inappropriate and a breach of decorum.

Darr signed the bill because, while the bill sat on the Governor’s desk unsigned, the records of concealed carry holders were still subject to disclosure and there was a risk the press would publish the list the names and addresses of individuals who had a concealed carry permit.[i]  While the action upset Governor Beebe, it was a small victory for gun rights advocates.

Issue 2 allowing the Governor to keep his powers when out of state was proposed by the legislature through a joint resolution sponsored by Senator Eddie Joe Williams as SJR3 of 2015. The amendment was approved by voters in November 2016.

The new amendment eliminates potential shenanigans when the Governor is out of state. Who knows, maybe governors will start spending more time out of state – which could be good or bad depending on your perspective.

Sorry, but if you didn’t get a certificate of recognition from an acting Governor, it is too late.





David Ferguson is a former Director of Arkansas’ Bureau of Legislative Research, having a thirty-two-year career as an attorney for the Arkansas legislature.  After retirement from state service his primary focus has been beef cattle farming. He is also a former officer of Conduit for Action.

[i] http://www.arkansasnews.com/sections/news/arkansas/beebe-miffed-darr-signing-gun-bill-law.html