Lawmakers Back Keeping Arkansas Lieutenant Governor's Office Open

LITTLE ROCK - With Arkansas Lt. Gov. Mark Darr stepping down next month over ethics violations, legislators said Thursday there's growing support to change the law so the state can avoid a special election to fill the post for just a few months.

Gov. Mike Beebe said he was still researching whether the law requires him to call a special election to fill the vacancy for Darr, a Republican who announced Friday he would step down Feb. 1 over questions about his office and campaign spending. Beebe said he was also researching whether Darr had actually resigned since he hadn't submitted a formal letter to the governor's office.

Beebe said he believes the law requires him to call a special election within 150 days of declaring Darr's office vacant. But legislative leaders, citing the cost of a special election for a mostly ceremonial post that will be filled in the November general election anyway, are considering changing the law during next month's legislative session.

Beebe said he's open to the idea, but only if there's widespread support for taking up the matter.

"I don't have an arbitrary number, but it needs to be overwhelming," Beebe told reporters.

Taking up a change in the law would require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, since this year's session is intended to focus primarily on the budget. House Speaker Davy Carter and Senate President Michael Lamoureux both back changing the law and were gauging support for the move.

"It seems to me that changing the law to give the governor the discretion instead of the mandate makes a lot of sense," said Carter, R-Cabot.

Lamoureux agreed, noting there would be little for an interim lieutenant governor to do during the few months he'd be in office. The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate and casts the rare tie-breaking vote in the 35-member chamber.

"I think it's a significant expense without a lot of return," Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said.

Alex Reed, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office, estimated a special election would cost more than $1.2 million, based on the cost of the state election on a highway bonds issue in 2011. Reed said the cost would be higher if the Democratic and Republican parties chose their nominees by primaries instead of conventions.

The top Democrats in the House and Senate said they'd likely back the change, but that they were still measuring support among their caucuses in both chambers.

"There's just very little that will impact the state by not having a sitting lieutenant governor in office," said Senate Minority Leader Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis.

Darr announced his resignation Friday night, after facing increasing pressure from Democrats and Republicans to step down or be removed from office. Darr agreed Dec. 30 to pay $11,000 in fines imposed by the state Ethics Commission for 11 separate violations, including making personal use of more than $30,000 of his campaign funds.

Beebe said his office is researching whether Darr's announcement — submitted as a resignation letter "to the people of Arkansas, not an elected official" — was enough. Darr notified Carter and Lamoureux of his resignation, but did not submit a formal letter to the governor's office.

"We know how legislators resign. They've got to give a letter to the governor and that's the statute," Beebe said. "But how do these other folks resign? We're looking."

A spokeswoman for Darr later said the lieutenant governor "will comply with all formal protocols concerning his departure from office" by Feb. 1, but didn't say whether that would include submitting a formal letter of resignation.

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