New bill would require elections for Senate vacancies

Some concerned similar ballot initiative could hurt Lisa Murkowski's chances for re-election

Posted: Friday, January 30, 2004

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski may not have to run for election this fall on the same ballot as a citizens' initiative that's critical of the way she got her job.

The House Judiciary Committee, headed by Rep. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican, introduced a bill Wednesday that would require U.S. Senate vacancies to be filled by election.

If it passes the Legislature, the bill would be viewed as a replacement to the initiative and thus keep it off the ballot.

Currently, if two and a half years or less remain in a U.S. Senate term when it becomes vacant, the governor appoints a replacement. That law allowed Gov. Frank Murkowski to name his daughter, Lisa, to replace him when he left the Senate in 2002 to become governor.

That angered some voters who saw the appointment as nepotism.

A group called Trust the People - headed by three Democratic lawmakers - gathered more than 50,000 signatures to put a measure on the November ballot to change the law. The Division of Elections is verifying those signatures.

Some political observers have said if the initiative stays on the ballot, it could hurt Lisa Murkowski by reminding voters of the controversy surrounding her appointment.

But McGuire said she is not sponsoring the bill to help Lisa Murkowski or the Republican Party.

"I've put it out to address the will of the people," McGuire said. "I came back home and there were people in my district that were really concerned about it - Republicans."

She said she does not know whether other majority Republican lawmakers will support the bill.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat, said he believes the bill is intended to benefit Lisa Murkowski.

"It's painfully transparent to me that that's the case," Berkowitz said.

He said for years he has pushed bills and amendments to bills that would require all Senate vacancies to be filled by election, but has never been able to get them through the Republican-dominated Legislature.

McGuire has been among those voting against the idea, he said.

McGuire said in the past she was following the advice of more senior legislators and had believed the appointment system worked. Comments from constituents changed her mind, she said.

Backers of the initiative have said they fear that Republicans will back the bill this year just to keep it from going to voters, then come back next year and gut it.

The Alaska Constitution prevents the Legislature from repealing a voter-approved initiative for two years after it passes. But if the Legislature passes a law, it can repeal it any time.

McGuire said she would oppose any move to reverse the bill if it becomes law.

She is concerned, though, that Alaskans could be left without representation in the U.S. Senate during the time it would take for a special election to be held. A short-term appointment might be needed during the time, she said.

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