Who runs the state when the governor is away?

Published 1:28 pm Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Edwards was in England, while Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser was in Australia.

A spokesperson for Edwards said the governor is always in charge. Apparently, the mindset is that Governor Edwards is always available by phone or email, so he never really is “away.” Not so says the Louisiana Constitution, where clear language states: “When the governor is temporarily absent from the state, the lieutenant governor shall act as governor.”

The most recent constitutional convention, which was held in 1973, was called by the Louisiana legislature to update and rewrite the state’s founding document. I was a co-author of the legislation creating the convention, and I also served as an elected delegate for the one year undertaking to draft a new constitution. With little controversy, the convention overwhelming adopted the provisions that put the lieutenant governor in charge when the governor is out of state. The intentions of the delegates were quite clear.

In 1973 there were no cell phones, but landlines, of course, were abundant. However, Louisiana had experienced numerous blackout problems during hurricanes. Phone lines went dead during the storms and the delegates to the constitutional convention wanted provisions that, under emergency conditions, someone on the state level would be physically in charge. They had the savvy and the foresight to see that regardless of communication breakdowns, Louisiana would be best served by an onsite governor during an emergency.

Granted, communication systems have become much more sophisticated today, but the importance of the provisions still applies. No better example can be found than the Katrina experience. Cell phone and Internet service failed, and local television and radio stations were off the air. An absentee governor would not have been able to communicate to first responders, the state police or the National Guard. No matter how electronically “tuned in” an out of state governor might be, the delegates felt that a major emergency needs “hands on” leadership. And they were right.

Was another statewide official ever called on the issue of an executive order from the Governor’s office? Yes. On several occasions, I filled the role as governor to deal with an anticipated emergency. I was elected Secretary of State in 1979, and the office is second in line to the Governorship behind the Lieutenant Governor. On several occasions, both then serving Governor Dave Treen and Lieutenant Governor Bobby Freeman were out of the country and I got the call.

The first time was in the fall of 1980. I had been in office for a little less than a year, and I was attending a national convention of Secretaries of State in Atlantic City. My wife was along, and we had tickets for one of the final concerts of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. This was a big deal back then, and an event my wife and I did not want to miss.

Late in the afternoon before the concert, the phone rang.  The governor’s executive counsel, Sonny Mouton was on the phone along with then Commissioner of Administration Bubba Henry. They quickly told me that both the governor and the lieutenant governor were out of the country, and they needed me to get back to Louisiana immediately to call a much-needed special session of the legislature. “I’d be glad to,” I told them, “first thing in the morning.”

No, they told me—the call had to be signed by midnight. What a dilemma.  Either Frank, Dean and me hangin’ out (well, sort of), or back to Louisiana on a late flight. I reluctantly opted to skip the concert and fly back to New Orleans. A State Police helicopter met me on the Delta runway, and I signed the needed document minutes before the midnight deadline.

Should the law be changed to have the governor in charge at all times?  There are pros and cons, particularly in a state that is as disaster prone as Louisiana. Right now, a succession of who is in command is the law. So, when Governor Edwards travels outside the country, the law says he should have someone looking over his shoulder. Whether he likes it or not.

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also listen to his regular podcast at www.datelinelouisiana.com.