When a lieutenant governor shakes hands with the boss, a couple of fingers check the governor's pulse -- because, as an old joke goes, no pulse equals a promotion.
The joke stems from conventional wisdom, which holds that like the U.S. vice president, the main duty of whoever occupies the number two state job is to take over if the state's numero uno dies or becomes disabled. But a new study by a Georgia political science professor argues that conventional wisdom is wrong.
"People are always saying that the lieutenant governor is a powerless position. That's not really so. They do have access to forms of institutional power," David Winder, political science professor at Valdosta State University, told Stateline.org.
Winder has rated lieutenant governors based on whether they preside over the state Senate, appoint committees, assign bills, and break ties. He also awarded points for being acting governor when the governor is out of state, and serving in the governor's cabinet.
By those measures, he says, South Dakota's Lt. Gov. Carole Hillard, one of 17 women currently serving as lieutenant governor, is the most powerful such official in the nation.
Hillard does not disagree. "As far as powerful, I'm clearly not as powerful as the governor. But it's a position that can be expanded based on the talents and the interests of the lieutenant governor," she said.
Delaware, North Dakota, and Texas also give weighty powers to their lieutenant governors, Winder's study shows.
Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff presides over the influential state Senate. He also appoints committee chairmen, which allows him to set the legislative agenda.
"I consider myself a legislative mechanic," Ratliff said. "There are hundreds of times every day that members come and talk to the lieutenant governor and say, I have this bill, are you OK with it?' I make the decision whether it goes to a friendly committee."
In Illinois, Florida and Iowa, the job of lieutenant governor is largely ceremonial. Illinois' Dan O'Neal quit the post in 1981 after only a short time in office, explaining that his job was one that "a person of average intelligence can learn in a week."
Not every state has a lieutenant governor. In Oregon, Wyoming, and Arizona, the secretary of state is next in line of succession for the governor's job. In Maine, New Jersey, and West Virginia, it's the Senate president. In Tennessee, the speaker of the Senate is a heartbeat away.
"The job is what you make it," Winder said. "The lieutenant governor is interesting because you can make an impact on state government, but you have to seek out ways to do that."
In the 25 states where lieutenant governors automatically become acting governor when the boss is out of state, some understudies have taken advantage of their fleeting time in the starring role.
In 1979, Kentucky Lt. Gov. Thelma Stovall called the General Assembly into special session while Gov. Julian Carroll was out of the state and got the lawmakers to cap property taxes.
That same year in California, Mike Curb -- a Republican lieutenant governor under former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown - appointed a judge and rolled back pollution controls while Brown was away.
Alabama Lt. Gov. Steve Windom used his gavel to grab power from the Democratic majority in the state Senate three years ago, prompting the Democratic leader to call him a "madman."
Four states - Alabama, Louisiana, Rhode Island, and South Carolinacurrently have governors and lieutenant governors from different parties. But most lieutenant governors don't make drastic changes while the boss is away.
"For the most part, they're pretty careful about that. The governor comes back, and things go on," said Gail Manning, director of the National Conference of Lieutenant Governors.
The highest paid lieutenant governor is New York's, at $151,500, Manning said.
In Idaho, part-time Lt. Gov. Jack Riggs is paid $26,750 by the state, and also works as a doctor and owner of several urgent-care clinics. Other part-time lieutenant governors include Arkansas businessman Win Rockefeller (son of the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller and grandson of the late John D. Rockefeller, Jr.) and Kentucky Lt. Gov. Stephen Henry, a physician who volunteers at a hospital. Missouri also allows its number two official to moonlight.
In November, at least 19 new lieutenant governors will be elected, Manning said. One of them will be the first black female lieutenant governor -- in Ohio, Republican Jannette Bradley and Democrat Charleta Tavares, both of whom are black, are competing for the number two job. Only nine African Americans have previously served as lieutenant governors, and all have been men.
The idea of abolishing the office of lieutenant governor periodically gains support somewhere. Last year, Colorado Sen. Ken Chlouber, R-Leadville, introduced a constitutional amendment to eliminate the office, but the measure failed.
In 1867, Maryland eliminated its No. 2 office, only to reinstate it after the state was left without a statewide-elected official to take over when Gov. Spiro Agnew became Richard Nixon's vice president in 1968.
Lieutenant governors' duties include overseeing the commerce department (as in Indiana), certifying election results (as in Alaska), and serving as the chairs of the State Board of Pardons, (as in Pennsylvania and Delaware.)
Manning said states should add more powers to the office of lieutenant governor to help boost the office's perception.
"Name them to head an agency. Have them do something," Manning said. "The Legislature can do that in every state."