Elections, Peter Blake

Blake: Time to do away with legislator replacements by vacancy committee?

Maybe it’s time to change the way legislative vacancies are filled.

Libertarians and conservatives are unhappy that state Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, resigned her seat instead of having to face a possible recall election.

And not just because she might deserve to be recalled for her votes on gun control and other issues. If she were recalled and a Republican elected in her stead, control of the Senate would switch to the GOP. The September recalls of Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, had narrowed the Democratic margin to 18-17.

But what Hudak did was every bit as legal — and a lot more common — than the recall effort that progressives falsely claimed was “breaking our democratic process.” Resignation from the General Assembly is far too frequent, in fact. That’s largely because it’s without risk to person or party.

There’s no point in being upset that Hudak took advantage of the law, just as there’s no point in casting aspersions on the recall leaders for using the unusual process.

icon_op_edThose who don’t like Colorado’s legislative vacancy system should work to change it, either by a bill, a referendum or an initiative. It’s likely to require the latter. Incumbents like the current system. It’s the easiest way to get into the Senate from the House, or into the House without the rigors of a campaign.

Colorado is one of only five states that permit a vacancy committee from the incumbent’s party to fill an empty legislative seat. In seven states, vacancies are filled by the boards of county commissioners that cover the district. In 11 states the governor appoints the successor — usually from the same party as the lawmaker who died or resigned. Tennessee and Ohio authorize sitting lawmakers to elect a successor.

But in 25 states the law requires an election in which all voters in the district may participate. That’s clearly the fairest way — albeit the most expensive.

Hudak wasn’t necessarily being “noble” by stepping aside to make sure Democrats keep control of the Senate. She will probably be amply rewarded for the move, probably with a cushy job. Maybe even New York City Mayor Bloomberg, the nation’s richest gun controller, will step forward with an offer.

According to records kept by the Colorado Legislative Council, at least 77 state lawmakers in the last few decades have availed themselves of vacancy committees to further their political careers. Just a few examples:

— Senate President Pro Tem Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, who replaced Sen. Paula Sandoval in May 2010 when Sandoval was elected to Denver City Council.

— Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, was elevated from the House in November 2007 to replace Ron May, who resigned.

— Rep. Douglas Bruce, author of the TABOR Amendment, was named by a vacancy committee to succeed Cadman in the House. He immediately kicked a photographer and lasted just one year, losing re-election.

— Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, Joint Budget Committee chairman, who replaced Jennifer Veiga,who resigned after the 2009 session to move to Australia. He had been a lobbyist.

— Giron herself was appointed to the Senate by vacancy committee in August 2010 to succeed Abel Tapia. who was named head of the state lottery.

— Christine Scanlan was named to the House in December 2007 replace Dan Gibbs, who succeeded Joan Fitz-Gerald in the Senate. Elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2010, she resigned just a month later to become a lobbyist for Gov. John Hickenlooper and a vacancy committee replaced her with Millie Hamner. That shows considerable contempt for the promises of a legislative campaign.

It costs practically nothing for a vacancy committee to choose a successor. It usually consists of the legislative district’s central committee members. They range in size but rarely number more than a few dozen.

What would a vacancy election cost? Wayne Williams, clerk of El Paso County , where Morse was recalled, estimated it would run from $75,000 to $150,000, depending on the size of the district. All-mail ballots would be cheapest.

Whether a constitutional amendment is required to change the system isn’t clear; the vacancy-filling process is almost entirely governed by statute, which spells out the details of how and when vacancy committee meetings shall be convened.

The only reference in the state constitution says vacancies “shall be filled in the manner prescribed by law. The person appointed to fill the vacancy shall be a member of the same political party….” But if the law were changed to require an election, the appointment reference would become irrelevant.

If vacancies were more expensive to fill and involved the risk of the legislator’s party losing a seat, incumbents might think twice about leaving early for a better job or the beaches of Australia. Elections would also bring in a much wider base than the insiders who tend to populate vacancy committees.

Changing the system would have other benefits beyond merely preventing a lawmaker facing a recall election escape the process.


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