As Gov. Terry Branstad went through the confirmation process this week to become U.S. ambassador to China, others were left home squabbling like juvenile siblings over a recently vacated bedroom.

The vacancy won't be the governorship. We know who is taking over that position - current Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.

However, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, an elected Democrat, surprisingly reversed course last week. On Monday, Miller issued a formal position, while Reynolds will be governor, she will not have the authority to appoint her replacement as lieutenant governor.

That's a complete turnaround from five months ago. This was the language directly from Miller's office Dec. 13, 2016: "Our office has researched the law and consulted with the Governor's office. We concur with the Governor's conclusion that, upon resignation of Governor Branstad, Lt. Governor Reynolds will become Governor and will have the authority to appoint a new Lt. Governor."

It would be a fair assumption this assurance was one factor playing into Branstad's decision to leave the governor's office if confirmed for the federal post.

Miller said his latest conclusion was based on an Iowa Constitution provision addressing a governor's resignation, which states, ". the powers and duties of the office . shall devolve upon the lieutenant governor."

However, Miller said his reading of the constitution led him to conclude once this happens with Reynolds, her office becomes vacant.

"In other words, upon a governor's resignation, the lieutenant governor will hold both the offices of governor and lieutenant governor. There is no vacancy to be filled," according to the opinion.

The reversal has Republicans fuming, and we're finding it hard to blame them. We'd have to agree the timing is suspect. Was the attorney general derelict in his duties earlier, or is this latest decision linked to partisan politics? Whichever way this is answered, it won't be an endorsement.

Branstad has stated nothing has changed in the facts or the law since Miller provided a "crystal clear" position in December.

"Tom Miller has allowed politics to cloud his judgment and is ignoring Iowa law," Branstad said in a statement. "This is disappointing."

The National Lieutenant Governors Association chimed in Tuesday, also calling Miller's decision "disappointing."

Meanwhile, Reynolds says she has been moving forward in her transition planning from the position she would appoint her successor.

"Now, five months later, just one day before Governor Branstad testifies before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the attorney general has reversed himself, but the law hasn't changed."

Ben Hammes, Branstad's communications director, said the power of a governor to appoint a new lieutenant governor was put into the law and signed in 2009 - all under Democratic control.

"Now, just because the Democrats do not control the governor's office, Attorney General Miller wants to pretend like this law does not exist, and issue a non-binding opinion. Quite frankly, this is what Iowans are sick and tired of. The attorney general should be upholding the law, not ignoring it."

Meanwhile, the Democratic leader in the state Senate, Rob Hogg, of Cedar Rapids, said he expects the courts to eventually get the matter.

If it does end up in court, it's not clear who would bring such a case. Miller has stated he would not challenge an appointment himself. Why he would flip-flop on the issue, then decline to defend his latest decision is another matter worth questioning.

However, it obviously leaves the door open for others to challenge an appointment, should Reynolds go ahead and make one.

One thing is certain: Should this issue become another drawn-out legal process, Iowa taxpayers stand to lose.

The combination of the circumstances, the reversal and the timing scream partisan politics. At the very least, it's a case where the lack of clarity leads to the perception of partisan tactics.

Should this issue end up in the courts, with Iowa taxpayers footing the bill, the language of how these positions are filled — covering all cases of how they may be vacated — needs to be plainly spelled out to avoid similar situations in the future.

This editorial appeared in the May 5 edition of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, another Lee Enterprises publication.


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