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Lawmakers eye process by which U.S. senators are appointed

February 14, 2009|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

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For more information about bills being considered in the Maryland General Assembly and to track bills of local interest, go to Maryland General Assembly.

ANNAPOLIS -- The spectacle of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's appointment of President Obama's successor to the U.S. Senate has convinced some that laws - and even a constitutional amendment - are needed to prevent governors from appointing U.S. senators.

"I think what (Blagojevich) tried to do made it obvious that we ought to be doing something different," said Maryland Del. Richard B. Weldon, who is unaffiliated and represents parts of Frederick and Washington counties. "Why even tempt fate? Let's just avoid it and take it to the voters."

Weldon has co-sponsored a bill in the state's House of Delegates that would take the power away from the governor to appoint a U.S. senator in the event of a vacancy.

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Instead, voters would decide who fills the position in a special election.

Del. Andrew A. Serafini and Del. Christopher B. Shank, both R-Washington, also co-sponsored the bill. There are several bills being considered by the General Assembly addressing the issue.

The legislation would take effect in July.

The 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants state governors power to appoint U.S. senators. U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would repeal that portion of the 17th Amendment and instead allow for a special election to take place.

"These choices are always better made by voters than they are by politicians," Weldon said.

He said the decision would be more "pure" in the hands of the voters.

However, some members of Washington County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly say they are concerned about the cost of holding a special election.

According to the bills, it would cost the state about $1.2 million to hold a special election. Local costs were not specified, but would "increase significantly" if a special election was held.

"While I like people to be elected, the cost of a special election is going to be very high," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington. "I just think that's the wrong thing. There's no reason the governor shouldn't continue to appoint U.S. senators when vacancies arise."

Del. LeRoy E. Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, agreed, saying a special election, which draws only about 20 percent of voters, are too expensive.

"I don't see the need to do it," he said.

Shank said the cost was worth it to prevent the situation that took place in Illinois.

"The status quo is something just not tolerable," Shank said. "I think the people's right to directly elect their U.S. senators is certainly worth every penny of that. It's an investment in democracy."

Myers said he heard two of the election bills in the Ways and Means Committee he sits on, and said the motives for them might be political. One of the House bills was sponsored by a Republican lawmaker, and there was some discussion in the committee those same lawmakers would not have drafted the bill if Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley was a Republican.

Shank said the bills - one of which he co-sponsored - are not a "negative slap" to O'Malley, but simply a reaction to the situation with Blagojevich.

"I don't necessarily look at it as taking power away from the governor as I do giving power back to the citizens of the state of Maryland," Shank said.

Christine Hansen, spokeswoman for O'Malley, said the governor "does not object" to one of the election bills - sponsored by Del. Saqib Ali, D-Montgomery - but has not "fully reviewed" the bill sponsored by Del. William J. Frank, R-Baltimore County, and co-sponsored by local delegates.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, said he is not certain how he would vote on the bills being considered by the General Assembly.

"But I would tend to say we'll stick with tradition on that," he said.

Mooney said in the past it was up to state lawmakers to appoint U.S. senators if there was a vacancy.

"Part of the idea was it would be less likely that the senators would take away powers that rightfully belonged to the state," he said.

Mooney said that's another good reason to keep the current system in place.

"If the governor gets to appoint U.S. senators, he's more likely to encourage that U.S. senator to stick with more limited federal government," he said.

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