JEFFERSON CITY—After nearly 90 minutes of debate Thursday, the state House of Representatives approved a bill that would call for special elections in order to fill vacancies in statewide offices.
Democrats assailed the legislation, saying it was written with a potential vacancy in 2010 in the Secretary of State's office in mind.
Under current law, if a statewide position other than governor or lieutenant governor is vacated, Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, would have the power to select who fills the remainder of the term. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, said this bill would give Missouri residents more power in determining who fills vacant positions.
"This gives the power back to the people," Smith said. "This will give people the first and final say on who represents them."
Smith said the idea for the bill he sponsored came from the recent debacle in Illinois, involving former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Blagojevich, a Democrat, was removed from office after he allegedly tried to trade an appointment to an empty U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama for money or political favors.
Democrats said Missouri has no track record of corruption the way Illinois does, so the motivation for this bill runs more along political lines.
Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Arnold, called the bill "silly," and said it was nothing more than a ploy by Republicans to have a chance at winning the secretary of state's job in a special election. Current Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat, has announced she will vie for U.S. Sen. Kit Bond's seat in 2010. If she were to win and this law were enacted, a special election would be held for her position in early 2011, whereas currently Nixon would be able to name Carnahan's successor immediately. Roorda added that if Matt Blunt, a Republican, were still governor, this bill would never have been drafted.
"To be fair, if there was still a Republican governor and we kept running bad candidates, we would probably do the same thing, too," Roorda said to Smith. "(This bill) is political gamesmanship, and it's nonsense."
Carnahan's office was not immediately available for comment.
The bill passed 94 to 63, with five Democrats voting in favor and no Republicans voting against. Before the vote, several Democratic legislators criticized the bill, with some questioning why it had not been introduced until this year. For nearly the entire debate Thursday, Smith was the only Republican defending the bill, although Rep. Mike Silvey, R-Claycomo, also vouched for the legislation.
Currently all statewide offices are held by Democrats except for those held by Bond and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.
Democrats voiced concerns about who would assume office between the time a vacancy occurs and a special election is held. When Rep. Jason Kander, D-Kansas City, asked Smith who would oversee the Attorney General's office if that position were relinquished, Smith said the governor's office would.
"It would be troubling to me if the governor controlled the office that is charged with potentially investigating and prosecuting the executive branch," Kander responded. "If we have a governor in the future who is not an attorney like this one is, how can they control the office?"
Other House Democrats called the bill "disingenuous" because it only pertains to the small number of statewide offices and not to the hundreds of county and municipal jobs that could also go vacant. Multiple Republicans questioned why the Democrats hadn't proposed any amendments prior to the bill coming up for a final vote.
"They had a chance to make changes and they didn't," Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said. "You would need to ask them (Democrats) why that was."
Rep. Jonas Hughes, D-Kansas City, said he didn't offer an amendment because he wasn't going to support the bill either way. He added that it was curious that Republicans referred to respecting "the will of the people" as their impetus for the legislation but failed to account for local positions in it.
The bill must still pass through the state Senate and then be signed by Nixon before taking effect. If the governor were to veto the bill, it would need support of two-thirds of the House and Senate to override Nixon and pass the bill into law. Thursday's vote in the House fell short of that two-thirds threshold, and at least one Democrat said there is no way Nixon would sign the bill.
"You know the governor is probably going to veto this because it limits his power," said Rep. Ray Salva, D-Sugar Creek. "So then we just wasted all this time. It's important that this body remembers the separation of powers."
Gov. Nixon's office could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Debate on the House floor was heated at times, particularly between Smith and Rep. Don Calloway, D-St. Louis County, who referenced an estimate that a special election could cost the state nearly $1.2 million.
"There is no price for democracy," Smith said.
"If you believe that it was the people of the state who sent us here to represent them, then you will support this bill."