Nixon denies politics in parole board appointment

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Gov. Jay Nixon said Thursday that his appointment of a Missouri lawmaker to the state parole board was based on merit and not -- as some senators have suggested -- a political reward for the lawmaker's vote against an income tax cut.

Republican Rep. Dennis Fowler resigned from the House last month to accept an appointment by Nixon to the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole. Fowler was one of 15 House Republicans who bucked party leadership and voted in September to uphold the Democratic governor's veto of an income tax cut bill.

Fowler's appointment left Republicans with 108 House seats -- one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to override gubernatorial vetoes. That frustrated many remaining Republican lawmakers.

On Wednesday, several senators told The Associated Press that they will block a confirmation vote needed for Fowler to continue serving as a parole board member. One of those opposing Fowler's appointment is Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, who said he believes it was a "political payoff" for voting against the tax-cut legislation.

Asked about such accusations Thursday, Nixon responded: "That's just blatantly false."

"Dennis has a 38-year career in law enforcement, and I think he's highly qualified, highly capable to serve on that board," Nixon said.

Fowler, 65, told the AP in December that he accepted the appointment because it provided an opportunity "to get back into the business I know." He said the job also significantly boosts his salary and pension benefits during a six-year appointment that could carry him through to retirement.

Nixon noted Thursday that he previously appointed three other lawmakers -- two Republicans and one Democrat -- to the parole board. They all received Senate confirmation.

Fowler's appointment "didn't have anything to do with any votes on anything," Nixon said. "It had a lot to do with his background and career, which has been stellar in both juvenile law as well as criminal justice."

Fowler's former seat was one of three vacancies in the 163-member House when the Legislature convened its annual session Wednesday. There also is one seat vacant in the 34-member Senate.

One of those Missouri House seats has been vacant since last June, when Rep. Jason Smith won a special election to Congress. The other three seats became vacant last month due to resignations.

The Missouri Constitution gives the governor the power to set special elections. And a state law says the governor "shall, without delay, issue a writ of election" to fill vacant legislative seats.

Nixon has not set special elections to choose legislative replacements, though a recent lawsuit seeks to compel him to do so. He would need to act relatively soon in order for an election to be held before the legislative session ends May 16.

Nixon indicated Thursday that he likely would set special elections but stopped short of definitively saying "yes" and gave no specific time when he would do so.

"My intention would be to do it in a timely fashion and certainly look towards making sure the people of those districts have another opportunity to speak," Nixon said.

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