Bill to elect vacant seats becomes law

Posted: Wednesday, June 09, 2004

JUNEAU A bill that would prevent Alaska governors from making any more long-term appointments to the U.S. Senate became law over the weekend without Gov. Frank Murkowski's signature.

Legislators passed the bill earlier this year after it became clear that a citizens' initiative to do about the same thing had enough signatures to go on the November ballot.

Lt. Gov. Loren Leman said Tuesday the new law will knock that question off the ballot.

A sponsor of the initiative, however, said he thinks the question still should go before voters because there's a key difference between the new law and the proposed ballot question.

The initiative arose after Murkowski appointed his daughter, then state Rep. Lisa Murkowski, to fill his U.S. Senate seat after he was elected governor in 2002. The appointment sparked cries of nepotism from some Alaskans.

The new law calls for a special election to be held between 60 and 90 days after a U.S. Senate vacancy occurs. Previously, the governor could appoint a new senator if less than 2 1/2 years remained in the departing senator's term.

The new law still calls for the governor to appoint a replacement, but the replacement would serve only until the special election could be held.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, has said that's intended to assure Alaska has a vote in the Senate during the several months it would take to hold an election.

Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, who was one of the initiative sponsors, disagrees with the provision for even temporary appointments to the office because he said the appointee has an advantage during an election.

''They can sit in the U.S. Senate, raise money as a U.S. senator and use that leverage in the campaign,'' Croft said.

But Leman said he believes the bill meets the legal test of being ''substantially similar'' to the initiative, and thus, the measure no longer needs to go on the ballot this fall.

The lieutenant governor's office is charged with deciding such matters.

Croft said he may challenge Leman's decision, although he first wanted to see the legal reasoning behind it.

''There's a big difference to me between appointing and electing, and they added (that) to our bill,'' Croft said.

The governor's spokesperson, John Manly, said Gov. Murkowski did not say why he did not sign the bill.

''I'm not aware of any position we took on it,'' Manly said.

The governor has 20 days to sign or veto a bill once it reaches his desk. If he takes no action within that time, the bill becomes law without his signature.

The initiative and the bill have drawn calls of partisanship from both sides of the aisle.

Sen. Murkowski faces three Republican challengers in the primary in August, and if she wins, she'll run against former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles in the general election in November.

Some Republicans speculated and Democrats denied that initiative sponsors were pushing the ballot question so it would be in front of voters at the same time they decided whether to elect Sen. Murkow-ski.

Democrats speculated that Republican lawmakers passed the bill to keep the initiative off the ballot and avoid embarrassing Sen. Murkowski.

However, McGuire said she sponsored the bill because her constituents supported it and because there were legal questions about whether the law on Senate appointments could be changed by initiative.

The new law also allows third parties to automatically qualify for a place on the ballot after they receive 3 percent of the votes cast in any statewide election, whether for U.S. House, U.S. Senate or governor.

Previously, third parties had to receive 3 percent of the vote in the governor's race to automatically qualify for the ballot.

The Green Party of Alaska sued over that provision after its 2002 gubernatorial candidate failed to get the required 3 percent vote.

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