COLUMBIA, SC Faced with the possibility of losing the seat he has held for 30 years representing part of Richland County, Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson took the unusual step Wednesday of resigning his Senate leadership position.
Courson made the move to avoid becoming South Carolina’s lame-duck lieutenant governor for six months.
According to the state Constitution, the Senate president pro tempore, one of the Legislature’s more powerful politicians, is next in line to become lieutenant governor, one of the state’s least influential posts, if that position becomes vacant.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said he does not expect the state to have a lieutenant governor or Senate president pro tempore until the Legislature returns in January. No senator has stepped forward who wants to give up his or her seat to become interim lieutenant governor, Martin said.
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The lieutenant governor’s most important duty is to become governor if that post becomes vacant.
If Republican Gov. Nikki Haley leaves office for some unforeseen reason between the end of this month’s legislative session and the arrival of a newly elected lieutenant governor in January, the Senate could convene quickly to elect a leader who would become governor, Martin said.
If not, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, the Charleston Republican who is next in the line of succession after the Senate president pro tempore, could become governor. Harrell is facing ethics allegations.
Courson, a Richland Republican, said his hand was forced when Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, insisted on resigning before the legislative session ends. McConnell, who will become the president of the College of Charleston next month, told senators Wednesday that he planned to resign Thursday.
But the General Assembly could meet through June 19, and, to avoid becoming lieutenant governor, Courson chose to step aside as Senate president.
Haley and McConnell have said the lieutenant governor’s office should not go unfilled, even though it has remained vacant for lengthy periods six times since 1879.
Courson proposed a solution.
“My request to him would be serve to his term out,” Courson said on the Senate floor of McConnell. “Since this is such a great, important position that the governor of this state thinks is so valuable ... she (should) get on the telephone or go to Charleston and meet with the lieutenant governor and tell him how important it is for the state of South Carolina (that) he continues to serve as our lieutenant governor.”
With Courson stepping aside, McConnell said he would consider staying in office an extra two weeks if the Senate does not elect a new president pro tempore Thursday. The lieutenant governor, who is president of the Senate, must ratify General Assembly-passed bills with the House speaker before they go to the governor.
“I will not leave the state in a constitutional crisis,” he said.
Bills that could be approved over the next two weeks include the state’s first major ethics law reform in two decades and allowing the College of Charleston to become a research university. The Senate agreed Wednesday to send the college bill to a conference committee.
McConnell said he wanted to leave this week because of conflict-of-interest questions that had arisen about him presiding over the Senate while it debated the College of Charleston proposals. But Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said Thursday McConnell already had pulled what he called “tricks” to help his future employer.
Peeler said McConnell did not call on him two weeks ago, while chairing the Senate, and, instead, recognized another senator who proposed fast-tracking the College of Charleston bill. Peeler said Courson was threatened that he should “toe the line” on the College of Charleston bill or risk being forced to give up his Senate seat to become lieutenant governor with McConnell’s resignation.
“When we hung that portrait (of McConnell in the Senate chamber), I praised that man,” Peeler said. “But, with the actions of the last two weeks, I won't feel the same.”
Courson said that his desire to delay a vote on the College of Charleston bill to allow it to be studied more led to the problems with McConnell, whom, he added, had changed his resignation date several times. Courson said that as recently as last week McConnell talked about staying in office while working at the college until a new lieutenant governor assumed office in January. Five candidates are vying to win the state’s No. 2 seat in November.
McConnell said he understood that Courson was disappointed about leaving his leadership post, especially since he faced the same choice two year ago. McConnell gave up being Senate president pro tempore when he was elevated to lieutenant governor after Ken Ard's resignation. Courson succeeded McConnell.
“You can't enjoy the power of being president pro tempore and escape the responsibility,” McConnell said.
McConnell said the Senate soon will need to elect a president pro tempore who will become lieutenant governor, adding a legislator cannot handle some executive functions of the office, including designating senators who can preside over the Senate and submitting a budget.
“You can't contort the Constitution to have it fit your needs,” McConnell said.
But, with the exception of ratifying acts, Martin said the Senate can find ways to work the duties of the lieutenant governor. “It’s not seamless, but it can work.”
Courson called McConnell one of his closest personal friends for 35 years, saying he recommended McConnell for the president’s job at the College of Charleston.
Now, Courson added, he has no plans to speak with McConnell.