CAPITOL JOURNAL

Vacant seats? Let the governor fill 'em

The price of electing lawmakers to replace ones who bolt is high. The Senate leader says it's time to let the chief executive decide.

SACRAMENTO — Senate leader Darrell Steinberg says he has seen enough. He wants to rid California of incessant special elections to fill vacancies in the Legislature.

The elections interrupt the legislative process, he asserts, and they bleed local taxpayers — roughly $1 million each time some lawmaker jumps ship, which has been increasingly often.

Let the governor fill vacant seats and be done with it, the Sacramento Democrat contends.

Amen.

If it were possible, I'd order lawmakers to stop the music, grab a seat and stay put. This musical chairs game is too expensive for the adults, the taxpayers. No more switching offices in midterm.

But forbidding politicians to run for another office is probably unconstitutional. So if they do bail in midterm, just let the governor choose their replacement.

Like the governor is allowed to do when there's a vacancy in a statewide office. Or when there's an opening on a county board of supervisors. Or a U.S. senator quits or dies.

If there's a vacant seat in the U.S. House delegation, the U.S. Constitution decrees that there must be a special election. But there's no such federal mandate for replacing a state legislator. Only a state law.

"The cost of these special elections and the delays for months at a time compels us to look at different ways to fill the vacancies," Steinberg says. "It would be much better to have the governor make the appointment."

Count up the legislative defections in the past year alone: There have been 10.

The latest is Sen. Bill Emmerson (R-Hemet), who's departing Sacramento because his "passion has waned" for legislating.

So there'll be a special election to replace him. Riverside and San Bernardino counties estimate it will cost residents $1.1 million

There was one special election last week in the San Fernando Valley to replace former Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, who jumped to the Los Angeles City Council.

The heavily favored Democratic candidate, Matt Dababneh, barely beat the underdog Republican, although Dems enjoy a 2-to-1 registration advantage. The close race probably resulted from a very low voter turnout — less than 12% — which usually helps Republicans and is habitual with special elections.

That's another reason to junk them: Few voters even bother to participate.

There'll also be a special election Dec. 3 in Los Angeles to replace former Democratic Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, who was elected to the Senate in a Sept. 17 special.

That's a common scenario: A senator — such as Democrat Curren Price — wins an L.A. City Council seat, where the $180,000 pay is nearly double the Legislature's. Then there's a special election — won by Mitchell — to fill the Senate vacancy. And that forces the Assembly special.

Another popular move: A state senator captures a U.S. House seat. Then an Assembly member fills the Senate vacancy. And yet another special election is called to plug the Assembly opening.

It's not only costly but also confusing.

A big plus for a politician playing this type of musical chairs is he can run for another seat without giving up his current one, unless he wins. That's called a free ride.

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