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Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross and Gov. Pataki have their differences -- and have learned not to live with them. He may not have been the most gracious of bosses; she may have been a washout as a team player. He didn't send a limousine; she stood up when she was supposed to sit down. This pair has proved that he said/she said can be a political dialogue.

So alienated have the two become that Ross has now decamped entirely and left the governor's party, switching her registration (and her political hopes) from Republican to Democrat.

But she has not resigned as Pataki's "lieutenant."

Politically, it may be funny. But for New Yorkers wondering who would be in charge if something happened to the governor, it could be serious. And the whole situation calls attention once again to New York's odd setup for lieutenant governors.

Divisions between Pataki and Ross opened long ago. Gradually, they have worsened to where he ruled her out as a running mate in any second term. Now she's switched parties.

Logically, it might seem to be incumbent upon Ross, since she no longer supports the governor she ran with in 1994, to resign her office. If she can't back the policies of that elected team, maybe she should get off the team.

But wait. That's where other problems come in.

Incredibly, New York's Constitution contains no procedures for filling a mid-term vacancy in the lieutenant governorship. Should Betsy Ross resign, the job would stay vacant until filled in the 1998 election.

Something like that happened in 1985. Lt. Gov. Alfred DelBello, who didn't get along with Gov. Mario Cuomo, resigned, but Cuomo couldn't replace him. The job stayed empty until the next election when Jamestown's Stan Lundine filled it.

Should Betsy Ross resign and something happen to Pataki in mid-term, there would be no elected statewide official to succeed him. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Troy, would become governor.

On the other hand, should Ross stay on as lieutenant governor and something happen to Pataki, New York would be saddled with an accidental governor who disagreed with the leader that voters had elected and -- in this case -- was not even of the same political party.

Only in Albany.

It's hard to conceive of anything that could mend the rift between Pataki and Ross. But the basic constitutional problems with the lieutenant governor job could be remedied by simply adapting the federal model to New York State.

The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1967, provides that presidents can fill mid-term vice-presidential vacancies, subject to approval by a majority vote of the House and Senate.

Why not, then, similarly empower governors to fill mid-term vacancies, subject to separate majority votes in the Senate and Assembly?

There's another related defect to consider, too.

New York should abolish the separate primary for candidates for lieutenant governor. Let the party conventions nominate them. Period. With the separate primaries, governors can be forced to run on the same ticket with candidates they oppose. In 1982 Cuomo was forced to run as a team with DelBello, who won a Democratic primary, even though Cuomo had supported H. Carl McCall.

We should free candidates for governor from this awkward burden. Allow the party conventions to nominate both, which normally means the candidate for governor will choose a running mate, as should be done.

The Pataki-Ross example notwithstanding, that procedure will more likely produce a compatible executive team that shares similar positions on public issues. If the governor then dies, resigns or is removed, the successor will at least share much of the same philosophy and objectives -- and be from the same political party.

A chance to fix the current arrangement is one more reason for New Yorkers to vote on Nov. 4 for a state constitutional convention.

Lieutenant governors are not, of course, the most essential and commanding of state officials. As long as Pataki remains healthy, none of this may matter much.

But the office does exist for something more than entertainment -- as amusing as the Pataki-Ross team has worked to make it.

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