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About lieutenant governors and other lesser-known statewide elected officials

David Colborne
David Colborne

A few days ago, Gov. Steve Sisolak appointed a new lieutenant governor. This raised several important questions: Nevada has a lieutenant governor? What, exactly, does our lieutenant governor do? How many other statewide elected officials do we have in this state? And what do the rest of them do?

Article 5 of the Nevada Constitution, which defines the executive branch of our state’s government, answers a few of these questions. Sections 17 and 18 define the roles the lieutenant governor fulfills. If the office of the governor is vacated — whether because of impeachment, removal, death, resignation, absence from the state (with some notable exceptions, including the governor serving as the head of a military force in time of war), or other inability to discharge the duties of the office — the duties of the governor fall upon the lieutenant governor for the remainder of the governor’s term. 

Unlike the vice president of the United States, who assumes the office of the presidency whenever it’s vacated, the lieutenant governor does not become governor when that happens — the person merely assumes the powers of the office of the governor, not the title. Consequently, Nevada has had acting governors (lieutenant governors exercising the power of the governor, in other words) on six separate occasions — once following Republican Gov. Stevenson’s disability and death in 1890; once following Silver Party Gov. John Jones’ death in 1896; once following Silver-Democratic Party Gov. John Sparks’ death in 1908; once following Republican Gov. Fred Balzar’s death in 1934; once following Democrat Gov. Edward Carville’s appointment as a senator in 1945; and once following Democrat Gov. Richard Bryan’s election as a senator in 1989.

If the governor is still alive, kicking, and otherwise behaving gubernatorially, however, the lieutenant governor is constitutionally tasked with serving as the president of the state Senate, casting votes only whenever there is a tie — and that’s about it.

Considering that Nevada’s Senate meets once every two years, give or take a special session or two, presiding over that body isn’t a lot of work. Despite the obvious constitutional underspecification of the office, however, the Legislature hasn’t gone out of its way to add to the lieutenant governor’s portfolio — Chapter 224, at just over 600 words, is shorter than most columns I write and mostly just promises lieutenant governors a somewhat modest annual salary, plus a per diem for travel. Beyond that, the lieutenant governor is statutorily employed on a modest number of commissions and boards. The rest of the lieutenant governor’s time can be spent however the person may wish.

Interestingly, when Nevada’s statehood was first established, the lieutenant governor did have one additional job assigned to it — the state prison warden. This duty was ignominiously removed, however, after 29 prisoners (more than a quarter of the state prison’s population) escaped under Lt. Gov. Frank Denver’s watch in 1871. The prison break led the Legislature, along with fellow Democrat Gov. Lewis Bradley, to wrest control of the state prisons away from the lieutenant governor’s office. Lt. Gov. Frank Denver, however, was not interested in ceding control voluntarily. The state militia was then deployed, along with the state militia’s field artillery, to the prison to change his mind — which he did, albeit with some reluctance.

The direct election of the lieutenant governor is something of a throwback to original federal practices. After the results of the 1796 and 1800 elections, which led Federalist John Adams and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson to take turns annoying one another as each other’s president and vice president, the Twelfth Amendment was written and passed to ensure that future presidents and vice presidents would be elected on a combined partisan ticket. The concerns which led to the Twelfth Amendment didn’t bother Nevadans much upon its statehood in 1864, however, which has led our state to have several lieutenant governors who didn’t belong to the same political party as their governor. 

Democratic Gov. Grant Sawyer, for example, served with a Democratic lieutenant governor — Lt. Gov. Maude Frazier, Nevada’s first female lieutenant governor, who was appointed by Gov. Sawyer to replace the deceased Republican Lt. Gov. Rex Bell to serve the final months of his term — for less than six months of his eight years as governor. Democratic Gov. Richard Bryan, meanwhile, started his first gubernatorial term serving with a fellow Democrat in the lieutenant governor’s office — until, that is, Lt. Gov. Bob Cashell changed his party affiliation to Republican eight months into his first term.

The Nevada Constitution specifies additional elected state officers beyond governor and lieutenant governor. Other than the secretary of state, however, it doesn’t go out of its way to specify what any of those remaining elected officers — namely, the treasurer, controller and attorney general — are supposed to do. That’s explicitly up to the Legislature.

One duty of the secretary of state is, unfortunately, rather well understood at this point, thanks to certain Republicans making names for themselves (as well as a couple million dollars) posturing against the only Republican elected to a statewide office — namely, the office’s role as Chief Officer of Elections. Swatting away unfounded election challenges isn’t the only duty secretaries of state fulfill in Nevada, however. Among other things, the office also maintains organizational records of registered companies and nonprofit organizations. This particular duty, along with the relatively lax standards the Legislature statutorily requires to incorporate a business in Nevada, has placed Nevada in the news a time or two.

The remaining elected officials, meanwhile, are notable because all three have statutory prohibitions against being absent from the state. The treasurer and controller are both prohibited from being outside of the state for more than 90 days without a leave of absence issued by the Legislature — the attorney general, meanwhile, is only granted 60 days.

The attorney general’s role is the most straightforward of the remaining three — that person is the top law enforcement officer of the state. As such, the attorney general’s office serves as the state’s legal representation and, by extension, the state’s lead prosecutor. Most usefully, the passage of AB232 in 2003 empowers the attorney general’s office to prosecute unsolicited telephone calls for the sale of goods or services, at least as long as the number being called is on the National Do Not Call Registry.

The role of both the treasurer and the controller, however, is a bit less intuitive — in no small part because past holders of those offices have historically used the unofficial powers granted by being statewide elected officials to work a bit beyond their job description. Democratic Treasurer Zach Conine, for example, is arguably the most publicly prominent statewide elected official without a key to a state-issued mansion, especially as he co-headlined the “Nevada Recovers Listening Tour” with Gov. Sisolak last summer. His stand-up material, meanwhile, is surprisingly funny for a politician. 

Former Controller and present Republican Ron Knecht, meanwhile, was (and remains) a rather prolific op-ed columnist while he served in office (there’s electoral hope for us all, perhaps). Then there’s former Republican Controller Kathy Augustine, who was many firsts — Nevada’s first woman controller, the state’s first impeached statewide elected official, and, if not the first, then certainly one of the first murder victims who had been formerly elected to a statewide office.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the treasurer is responsible for bringing money into the state’s accounts while the controller is responsible for tracking and recording how it’s spent. Their roles are complimentary — both of their statutory authorities and descriptions consequently mention each other’s offices and how they interrelate on several occasions. Conceptually, the treasurer is responsible for making educated guesses about where the state will financially be in the future, while the controller is responsible for accurately recording where the state has financially been.

That’s not to say that’s all the treasurer or controller does, however. 

Lest I receive an angry missive from Treasurer Conine for failing to mention this key responsibility, his office is responsible for, among other things, accepting and redistributing the state’s unclaimed property (he would really like you to know that you might have unclaimed property — search for it here or don’t, I don’t particularly care, but sleep well knowing that he does). His office has also taken it upon itself (with statutory support) to set up a cashless payment processing system for cannabis resellers in Nevada, or at least try to — this effort is an unfortunate side-effect of the federal government’s prohibition of cannabis, which prevents financial institutions with interstate business (in other words, pretty much all payment card processors) from working with legal cannabis retailers and wholesalers. 

As for the controller’s office, it generates several reports, including both the state’s Annual Comprehensive Financial Report and a simplified summary of that report, the Popular Annual Financial Report (in much the same way Unclaimed Property Awareness is Conine’s recurring bit, PAFR Awareness was former controller Knecht’s). It also serves as the state’s debt collector and maintains a database of approved vendors that state agencies have done business with.

In years past, Nevadans used to have a few more statewide elected officials to vote for. Both the surveyor general and superintendent of public instruction were partisan elected officials upon statehood. Both elected offices were removed from Nevada’s ballots in the 1950s, however — the position of surveyor general was abolished following the passage of Question 3 in 1954, while the passage of Question 4 in 1956 made the superintendent of public instruction an appointed position. Additionally, the state printer was initially a partisan elected position upon statehood — the position was briefly abolished in 1879, then resurrected as a partisan elected superintendency in 1881. Superintendents of state printing were later converted into an appointed position in 1969; the State Printing Office is now organized under the Legislative Counsel Bureau.

The two final statewide elected offices we no longer have on our ballot both relate to Nevada’s first industry — mining. 

Nevada had one elected partisan mineralogist: Republican Henry R. Whitehill, who served as the state’s first, last and only elected mineralogist from 1871, and was reelected in 1875. He did such a clearly outstanding job in that capacity, the Legislature abolished the office outright in 1877, though he was allowed to continue to serve the remainder of his term through 1878 — he spent some of that time writing a rather defensive op-ed for the Morning Appeal.

In 1909, the office of the inspector of the mines was created — the purpose was to assign the responsibilities inherent in ensuring mine safety to an elected statewide official. Despite being an elected official, however, the first inspector was appointed. Democrat Edwin E. Stuart briefly served as an inspector of mines — just long enough to pronounce Goldfield’s mines “safe,” followed a week later by at least two fatalities in mining accidents. Most inspectors of mines were subsequently elected until the office was statutorily abolished in 1973. Nowadays, mine safety is the responsibility of the Division of Industrial Relations.

For a complete list of all past partisan statewide offices, go here.

Correction (12/19/2021 at 8:48 a.m.): The original version of this piece incorrectly stated that Treasurer Zach Conine does not have a state bar license. He does, and earned his law degree from UNLV's William S. Boyd School of Law.

Correction (12/19/2021 at 11:03 a.m.): The original version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Nevada attorney general is not required to be a licensed attorney. That was true prior to the last legislative session, but a bill was passed in 2021 changing this requirement. Attorneys general must now be a member of the State Bar of Nevada in good standing.

David Colborne was active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he blogged intermittently on his personal blog, ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate, and served on the executive committee for his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is now an IT manager, a registered non-partisan voter, and the father of two sons. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].


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