A palace coup of sorts is playing out in the Capitol at the moment, but don’t take to the ramparts just yet.
Gov. Butch Otter is in Washington for Friday’s presidential inauguration. Lt. Gov. Brad Little is in Las Vegas attending a shooting and hunting trade show. So Brent Hill, the Senate President Pro Tempore, is acting governor in their absence, through midday Friday.
It’s not the Rexburg Republican’s first go-round as stand-in head of state. But in his six years as leader of the state Senate and third in line to the governor, he’s never before done it while the Legislature’s been in town, and that creates an added wrinkle: Hill has to forgo his Senate duties, including its daily session.
The lieutenant governor normally presides over the Senate. In his absence, presiding duties would fall to Hill. But in Hill’s absence, he appointed Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, to preside Thursday and Friday. Little returns to Idaho at midday on Friday.
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“The governor doesn’t even come to the third floor,” Hill said, referring to the location of the House and Senate chambers, “without the invitation of the speaker and/or the pro tem, and that’s usually in writing and he’s escorted. So he’s pretty careful. You don’t see him wandering around the third floor.”
It may seem overly formal, but the separation of powers is no laughing matter — maybe, anyway. One lawmaker jokingly suggested to Hill that he temporarily vacate his office next to the Senate chambers.
The Pro Tem headed down to the governor’s ceremonial office on the second floor Thursday for a photo op at the governor’s desk. His predecessor as Senate Pro Tem, Bob Geddes, now head of the state Department of Administration, “used to go down and put his feet on the governor’s desk to get a picture taken.”
Kidding aside, the chain of command has to be rigorously followed. The governor can act as governor only within the state’s borders.
“It usually doesn’t amount to much, but sometimes they have people that need to talk to the governor about something, and so they’ll get on a conference call with me,” Hill said. “Sometimes it’s like Homeland Security or something that needs a decision right away. I will then usually call the governor and talk to him and see what he wants me to do. I’m going to do what he wants, but he can’t authorize it from there. It’s got to be the acting governor that authorizes it.”
On one prior stint as acting governor, a newspaper columnist wrote a tongue-in-cheek editorial suggesting all the actions Hill should take while he had the chance.
“I had half a dozen people call, mostly mothers, wanting me to pardon their innocent son,” he said. “Obviously, if the governor’s not going to do it, knowing the situation, I’m not going to do it in one day.”