Senate panel hears bill changing way vacancies filled

After hearing testimony on a House-passed bill that would change election laws, members of the state Senate’s Financial & Governmental Organizations and Elections Committee were told they’ll be asked next week to approve a changed version of the bill.

State Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, sponsored the House bill.

“It allows a special election to be called by the governor (when there’s) a vacancy in the office of the lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, (state auditor), attorney general and the United States senator,” Smith told the committee Monday afternoon. “There were a couple of amendments that were added on the floor, that have changed the bill a little bit.

“One moved the Presidential Primary election date. It also lowered the automatic machine recount from 1 percent to one-half percent.”

And the bill requires the governor to call a special election for any legislative vacancy, and that the election be held, all within six months of the vacancy.

Although committee members asked some questions, no one testified for, or against, the proposal.

Then Chairman Jay Wasson, R-Nixa, announced his plans to offer a substitute for the committee at next week’s meeting.

He later told the News Tribune: “There just have been some things that were added as amendments, on the House side, that I just didn’t think belonged.

“They made it a little too convoluted.”

Wasson expects his proposed substitute to deal only with a process for replacing the lieutenant governor, if there’s a vacancy in that office.

Under current law, the governor appoints someone to fill a vacancy until the next general election, in November of even-numbered years — but Smith and other lawmakers want to speed up that process.

The governor’s office isn’t included in the proposal, because the state Constitution already dictates that order of succession.

The bill was introduced in January, when some lawmakers thought Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder was the favorite to win the Republican nomination to succeed now-former U.S. Rep. Joanne Emerson, who resigned her congressional seat to head the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Assn.

Ultimately, the 8th District Republican Committee chose Smith to represent the GOP in the June 4 special election against three others.

But, Wasson said, the bill still is needed.

“I would prefer, as quickly as we reasonably can, to put an elected official back into that spot,” he explained. “You could have a situation right now, where you could have up to maybe as much as two years where you’d have an appointee in there. ...

“(This) gives us a known road map of where we’re going, what we’re doing and how it’s going to happen.”

Wasson said the House amendment that moved the presidential primary election back to March isn’t a bad idea — but it may be too soon.

“My fear is that both of the (national) parties may change their minds, and we’d be right back in the same boat again” as last year, when the national Republican Party said Missouri’s February presidential preference primary was too early — but lawmakers failed to eliminate it and the state ended up with a nearly meaningless primary election and convention delegates chosen in separate party caucuses.

“I almost would rather let (the parties) decide where they want (the primary),” Wasson said, “and then we can try to move it — so we only have to do this once.”

The House passed the bill on Jan. 23, by a 115-45 margin.

Although the Senate’s public hearing came one day short of three months later, Wasson said there’s still time during the Legislature’s last three weeks to pass a bill.

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