House OKs bill letting voters fill U.S. Senate vacancies

Governor would no longer fill seats that come open in mid-term

Posted: Friday, March 05, 2004

The House approved a measure Thursday that would let voters, rather than the governor, choose the replacement when there's a vacancy in the U.S. Senate.

Some Democrats who've supported the concept in the past voted against the bill, while Republicans who've opposed the idea voted for it.

"Frankly, the method of selecting U.S. Senate vacancies has been a political football for years," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage. Although she said she hoped the House would take politics out of the matter Thursday, a political undercurrent ran throughout the discussion.

Current law lets the governor pick a replacement if a U.S. Senate seat comes open with less than two and a half years left in the term. That law let Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski pick his daughter, Lisa, to fill out his Senate term when he became governor in 2002.

Anger over that process led to a citizens initiative with more than 50,000 signatures for the ballot this fall. But if the Legislature passes a substantially similar bill, the initiative won't go on the ballot.

Democrats contend McGuire and other Republicans are backing the measure so the initiative is not on the ballot at the same time that Sen. Murkowski has to stand for election this fall. She will face former Democrat Gov. Tony Knowles.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said many Republicans who voted for the bill Thursday, including McGuire, are on record voting against similar legislation in the past.

But McGuire has said she is just responding to the wishes of her constituents. And she said she is rescuing the initiative from a legal battle that could keep it from taking effect.

"This is the way to do it, in my opinion," McGuire said.

Attorney General Gregg Renkes has argued that the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives only the Legislature the power to decide how Senate vacancies are to be filled, so voters cannot decide that by initiative.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner ruled last year that the state needed to let the sponsors proceed with their initiative petition drive, but did not rule on the underlying legal question.

The initiative was sponsored by three House Democrats - Eric Croft and Harry Crawford of Anchorage and David Guttenberg of Fairbanks - and some Republicans have accused them of trying to hurt Sen. Murkowski by putting the initiative on the ballot.

Croft said that was not his motive. He voted for the McGuire bill Thursday, saying he agreed that initiative supporters could lose the fight in court and be left with nothing having changed.

"I long ago learned not to bet on lawsuits," said Croft, a lawyer.

The other two initiative sponsors, Crawford and Guttenberg, voted against the McGuire bill.

They and other Democrats said they fear the Republican-dominated Legislature will approve the bill this year to keep it off the ballot, then come back next year and repeal 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 has said she would oppose a repeal of the law.

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