Lawmakers hope gubernatorial election debate won't dominate session

January 07, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |
  • State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson
State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Eastern Panhandle lawmakers told more than 150 business and community leaders Friday they hope the debate over a special gubernatorial election will not dominate the first regular session of the 80th legislature, which starts next week.

"The way to deal with it, is to deal with it and get it done," Del. Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan/Hampshire, told those gathered for the 2011 State Legislative Luncheon held by the Chamber of Commerce of Martinsburg and Berkeley County.

"Whatever the solution is, whatever the compromise is, whatever the legislators can do, let them do it," Cowles said.

As president of the state Senate, Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin took over when former governor Joe Manchin stepped aside after he was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Pending litigation before the state Supreme Court is expected to determine whether West Virginians will elect a permanent governor in 2011 or 2012.

The state's high court is expected to hear oral arguments on Tuesday, the day before lawmakers convene for the 60-day session.

Cowles said he doesn't believe the House of Delegates would "touch" the special election issue until the state Supreme Court rules on a pending legal challenge, citing a radio interview that House Speaker Richard Thompson gave Friday.

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, said a special election would cost between $8 and $12 million to determine who would hold the office for one year, maybe less.

And Unger said that whoever wins the special election would simply use the time in office as a vehicle to run for a full four-year term in 2012.

"If that's what the people want, then that's what we ought to give them," he said.

Yet, the incoming Senate majority Leader also noted the lack of public outcry when Gerald Ford became president as evidence that a special election may not be all that critical.

Ford was appointed by Richard Nixon to be vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned. Ford then went on to serve as president for three years after Nixon resigned in the wake of  the Watergate scandal, Unger recounted.

"I don't ever remember reading a cry from the people of America that we need to have a special election to elect the most powerful person in the world within those three years," Unger said.

"I'm just saying folks that if America can get through a constitutional issue with President Gerald Ford ... I think West Virginia can get through the next two years with Gov. Tomblin."

Del. Jonathan Miller, R-Berkeley, said Unger made a lot of good points, but countered that he believed the state's constitution appears to clearly indicate a special election should be held in 2011.

Miller said the easiest way to have addressed the controversy would have been to deal with it last year when lawmakers agreed to hold a special election for the seat that was held by the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

State Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson/Berkeley, said how House Speaker Richard Thompson, who is one of a number of lawmakers who want to be governor, responds to the issue will be key to what can be accomplished in the legislative session.

"We'll get through this session, I hope (it) doesn't dominate more than the first couple weeks, at the most," said Snyder, who was tapped to be chairman of the Senate Government Organization Committee.

Del. Larry D. Kump, R-Berkeley/Morgan, said he supports an election being held to elect the governor and the adoption of a state constitutional amendment to resolve the problem in the future.

Kump said he favors creating a constitutional office of lieutenant governor, who would be required to carry out the duties of an existing state job, such as secretary of commerce.

"I'd love to see the lieutenant governor, for instance, be the chairman of the Public Service Commission, so we'd at least have one elected official on it," Kump said.

A redistricting committee hasn't been selected yet, but Unger said he was tapped by incoming Senate leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, on Thursday to lead the effort in the chamber.

After the senatorial district lines are redrawn later this year, Unger said that he expects four senators to be elected from the Eastern Panhandle, including two from Berkeley County.

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