Iowa lawmakers start long process of bolstering role of state's No. 2 in order of succession

Constitutional amendment would reach voters in 2020 if legislators approve

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announces Adam Gregg as “acting” lieutenant governor on  May 25, 2017, at the Iowa  Capitol in Des Moines. (Scott Morgan/Freelance)
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announces Adam Gregg as “acting” lieutenant governor on May 25, 2017, at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines. (Scott Morgan/Freelance)

DES MOINES — Iowa voters would be asked to amend the state constitution to solidify the lieutenant governor’s place in the line of succession under a bill that cleared a Senate State Government subcommittee Tuesday.

Senate Study Bill 3133 seeks to resolve a murky area of law and a constitutional dispute that arose last May after then-Gov. Terry Branstad resigned to become the ambassador to China and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds succeeded him as Iowa’s 43rd governor.

Reynolds picked public defender Adam Gregg to take her place as lieutenant governor. But Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller gave a formal legal opinion that put a cloud over his status.

Miller said research by his office found that an individual ascending midterm from lieutenant governor to governor does not have the constitutional authority to appoint a replacement.

Reynolds, Branstad and others disputed Miller’s position. But rather than risk a legal challenge, Reynolds appointed Gregg as her “acting” lieutenant governor — a hybrid that makes him a “full partner” in her administration but leaves him out of the line of constitutional succession to replace her if need be.

Reynolds’ aide at the time called it “unprecedented” to have an acting lieutenant do the administrative and ceremonial duties of the office and draw the $103,212 yearly salary, but be outside gubernatorial succession.

Reynolds asked lawmakers to look into it. Tuesday, the subcommittee forwarded to the full committee a resolution seeking a constitutional amendment to establish the lieutenant governor’s place in the line of succession with “the same powers and duties as one who was elected, including the duty to act as governor or to assume the office of the governor and appoint a new lieutenant governor.”

The resolution would have to pass both the House and the Senate in the same form and then be approved again by the next Iowa General Assembly to come before voters in 2020.

“I think this is a good amendment to the constitution to fix the problem that’s in front of us that we know is out there,” said Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, chairman of the Senate State Government Committee. “We’re going to have the people have the final say.”

Eric Tabor of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office said “we believe that it does solve the problem that we encountered last year.” But he raised a new concern that language should be added to address a possible scenario where a governor and a lieutenant governor have been elected but not yet taken office.

Smith planned to work with the Attorney General’s Office to address that issue before the resolution is taken up by the full committee.

Under the current arrangement, Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, would be in line to succeed Reynolds should she be unable to serve out her term.

Smith said he wished the state’s constitutional drafters “would have been more clear when they wrote it, then we wouldn’t be here today.”

“We have to come in and fix this and I believe this does,” he said.

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