Georgia’s lieutenant governor has two constitutional responsibilities: to serve as president of the state Senate and to step in if the governor dies or becomes temporarily unable to perform their duties.
But since the office’s creation in 1945, the person holding the office has had powers that range from taking a role in the formation of the chamber’s committees and having a hand in the future of legislation to simply manning the gavel in the Senate.
A Republican majority has changed Senate rules twice — in 2003 and 2011 — to pare back the power of the lieutenant governor. Next year, the chamber will have a new president because current Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan did not seek another term. That will allow what will likely still be a Republican majority to set the rules for the state’s second-highest officeholder.
Though polls throughout the general election season have favored GOP nominee Burt Jones, with him leading Democrat Charlie Bailey by 8 percentage points in the most recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll of likely voters, the chamber could be led by a lieutenant governor whose views don’t align with the Republican caucus.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, a Carrollton Republican, said he expects Jones to win, but he agreed that who is in that role determines how much power they get.
“If you had a massive-majority-Republican Senate and a Democratic lieutenant governor, there would be some changes in the rules,” Dugan said. “There’s not a push that I’ve heard to modify the powers if Burt becomes the lieutenant governor. Burt is very well regarded.”
That wasn’t the sentiment of some in the chamber two years ago. Jones was one of several Republican senators who backed attempts to overturn the presidential vote in Georgia in favor of the losing candidate, Donald Trump.
Shortly after the election, Jones challenged Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller for his leadership position but could not get enough support in the Republican caucus.
Eighteen months later, Jones defeated Miller in a four-way GOP primary race for lieutenant governor. Based on campaign donations, support from their Senate colleagues was split in the primary, though Republican senators have since backed Jones.
Jones’ support for claims of election fraud also cost him his chairmanship when he returned for the 2021 legislative session, when Duncan dropped him as chairman of the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee.
There is precedent for stripping a lieutenant governor of his powers.
In 2002, after the election of Sonny Perdue, the Republican governor-elect persuaded several Senate Democrats to switch parties. That put the chamber in Republican hands for the first time since Reconstruction.
Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat, had just won reelection. In the 2003 session, Senate Republicans stripped his authority to make committee assignments and name committee chairmen.
In November 2010, Casey Cagle had just won a second term as lieutenant governor. But in the spring before, he went against some Republican senators when collecting votes for a hospital bed tax supported by Perdue. Two GOP senators who pushed back lost their committee chairmanships.
Cagle saw his reelection rewarded with a coup and, during the 2011 session, he, too, lost his power to make committee assignments and name committee chairmen.
Four years ago Republicans considered pulling some power from Duncan, who had served previously in the House, because he had no Senate experience. They ultimately left the powers intact.
That’s the power of the majority party in a legislative chamber, Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint said.
“If a party has a majority in the Senate, they have a lot of power to rewrite the rules,” he said. “In those instances, they used the legislative power they had and took some of the organizational power away from Taylor and then Cagle. But, if Burt Jones wins, he wont have any problems. Charlie Bailey, on the other hand, will probably have all kinds of problems if he manages to win.”
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Elena Parent of Atlanta said while she would expect the Republican majority to limit the power of Bailey, it remains to be seen how things shake out if Jones wins “because Burt has done certain things that were out of the mainstream viewpoint of their caucus, especially related to the 2020 election.”
“But my completely uneducated guess would be they would try to avoid that division,” Parent said.
Both Bailey and Jones’ campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson said they have no reason to believe that Senate leadership would vote to take their powers away.
“Burt is proud to have the strong support of his Senate colleagues and looks forward to working with them,” Lawson said.
Bailey said the scope of a future lieutenant governor’s powers was “an issue for another day.”
“I’m not going to presume bad faith on behalf of the Republicans,” he said. “But in this hypothetical, I win this race and I’ll be the lieutenant governor, not of the Democratic Party, but the lieutenant governor of the state of Georgia. I will work with anybody.”
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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution