Griffin, Burkhalter say lieutenant governor is an essential post; both tout job creation plans

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FILE - In this July 19, 2014, file photo, U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., speaks at the Republican Party of Arkansas state convention in Hot Springs, Ark. Griffin is vying, alongside former highway Commissioner John Burkhalter, a Democrat, to become the state's new lieutenant governor, amid a push from some lawmakers to abolish the office altogether. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

FILE - In this April 22, 2014, file photo, Democrat John Burkhalter speaks to members of the Arkansas Farm Bureau at a candidate forum in North Little Rock, Ark. Burkhalter, along with Republican congressman Tim Griffin, is vying to become the state's new lieutenant governor, amid a push from some lawmakers to abolish the office altogether. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin and Democrat John Burkhalter both say the Arkansas lieutenant governor's office is still very much needed, even though the post has been vacant for nine months and some lawmakers are working to eliminate the job altogether.

The two are vying to become the state's No. 2 leader along with Libertarian Chris Olson. The office has been unoccupied since Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr stepped down in February amid an ethics investigation.

Griffin, a two-term congressman and former federal prosecutor, and Burkhalter, a former highway commissioner, both note that two of the past five lieutenant governors have ascended to the governor's office in the middle of their terms. Jim Guy Tucker became governor after Bill Clinton was elected president, and Mike Huckabee became governor after Tucker resigned amid the Whitewater scandal that grew out of an Arkansas land deal in which the Clintons said they lost money.

"Twice in the last 22 years, the lieutenant governor's become governor, so this is a serious vote," Griffin said. "Take this vote as seriously as you would electing your governor."

Two state senators have proposed abolishing the lieutenant governor's office, saying the position is largely ceremonial and outdated. The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate and casts the rare tie-breaking vote in the 35-member chamber. The duties also include serving as acting governor when the governor is out of state or unable to serve.

"It's very important this person is ready to step in," Burkhalter said. "I'm ready to be governor if I'm needed to be."

Other lieutenant governors have used the post to advocate for key policy issues, such as former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who successfully lobbied for the creation of a state lottery to fund college scholarships.

Both Griffin and Burkhalter point to job creation as their signature issue, though they differ on how it can be achieved. Griffin, who serves on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said Arkansas needs to change its laws and regulations to make the state more attractive to companies — without using incentives as the key selling point.

"We're all for jobs — the question is not 'Are you for jobs?'" Griffin said. "The question is, 'Do you have specific ideas that will help us grow jobs and compete?' That's the question. And I believe that I do."

Burkhalter, who has never held elected office before, said his experience in the business world and on the Arkansas Economic Development Commission would aid him in attracting companies to the state.

"Businesspeople want to talk to businesspeople," he said. "You definitely need some politicians there but when it gets down to the final deal, they need to know that they're sitting across the table from somebody who understands their business."

Early voting began Monday for the general election.

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