Raleigh, N.C. — It has been three weeks since Lt. Gov. Dan Forest has presided over the Senate, the one duty specifically given to his office by the state constitution other than taking over in the absence of the governor.
Forest's name last appears on a Senate calendar as presiding officer on July 8, just as the General Assembly entered a stop-and-start period of budget negotiations and efforts to wrap up their work for the summer.
"The lieutenant governor was overseas on a Department of Commerce job recruitment delegation visit, and since returning has been attending to a family-related situation. He plans to return on Monday," said Kami Mueller, a spokeswoman for Forest.
By Monday, many senior lawmakers expect that they will have finished their work for the year.
Forest posted about his business recruitment efforts on his Facebook page. A posting on the lieutenant governor's page said he "led a NC Department of Commerce delegation to the Farnborough Airshow – one of the two largest aeronautics shows in the world. During the show, Dan personally met with nearly 20 companies whom either do existing business in the state or whom are considering doing business in North Carolina." Pictures on his feed also show some of the sites of London, including the London Eye Ferris wheel and a Buckingham Palace guard.
His office did not explain his "family-related situation," saying only it was a "it is a non-public family matter."
Minimal impact felt
Unlike in the U.S. Senate, where it is rare to see a modern vice president presiding unless a tie vote is expected, North Carolina lieutenant governors are generally present on most state Senate workdays. Both Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue, the Democrats who served during the 12 years before Forest, were more often on the dais than not during the waning days of legislative sessions.
The lieutenant governor doesn't vote on bills unless there is a tie. Although tie votes are rare with a 33-17 Republican-to-Democrat split in the chamber, during the week of July 20, there were three tie votes in the Senate. Two of them concerned amendments to legislation. The third concerned a hotly contested procedural motion that would have separated a controversial provision limiting counties' ability to impose sale tax from a broader economic development bill. A measure fails if it receives a tie vote.
In the lieutenant governor's absence, the president pro tempore, currently Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, or his designee presides over sessions. Although Berger and his top lieutenants control committee appointments, the flow of legislation and other substantive decisions, the lieutenant governor does play a role in helping legislation move smoothly through the chamber.
If Forest's absence was to have made a difference, it would have most likely been in the last two weeks, when senior Senate leaders have often been pulled from the floor to work on budget negotiations and other high-profile bills where the Senate and the House disagree.
But Berger said Tuesday that he has not noticed a dip in productivity.
"I actually like presiding," he said. "I feel like things are moving along fine."
Steve Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, says Forest's absence probably isn't something for voters to get riled about.
"It's not like he's there advocating for Gov. (Pat) McCrory's agenda or something like that," Greene said. "In terms of actual impact, it's hard to think of any."
Forest is a Republican, but his office is separately elected from the governor. Like all 10 of North Carolina's statewide elected officials, he serves on the Council of State, a body that approves land agreements, state borrowing and other ministerial matters. In addition to his constitutional duties, state law makes lieutenant governor a member of the State Board of Education, the Board of Community Colleges and several other boards that typically meet monthly. His current salary is $124,676 per year.