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Senate seat bill draws heated exchange

BISMARCK - After a heated exchange Thursday, a North Dakota House committee narrowly endorsed legislation that would force a special election to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy - a bill Democrats have criticized as a political move to discourage U.S. Sen.

BISMARCK – After a heated exchange Thursday, a North Dakota House committee narrowly endorsed legislation that would force a special election to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy – a bill Democrats have criticized as a political move to discourage U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp from running for governor in 2016.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, said a possible run for governor by Heitkamp in 2016 “wasn’t the primary reason” for putting House Bill 1181 together, “but it just got me interested in what the process would be.”

Heitkamp has been mum on whether she’s considering a run, and her office said Thursday she had no comment.

Streyle made no mention of Heitkamp during Thursday’s hearing before the House Government and Veterans Affairs Committee, focusing instead on the fact that state law already requires a special election to fill a U.S. House vacancy.

A hog-house amendment he introduced would require the governor to call a special election within 95 days when a Senate vacancy occurs. His original bill had 60 days, but he said the secretary of state’s office suggested the longer period.

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Current state law allows the governor to appoint someone to fill a vacated Senate seat temporarily until it can be filled at the next primary or general election.

“The reason for this bill is very simple in my mind. Why would we not want the people of North Dakota to decide who their senator is should a vacancy occur?” Streyle said. “It’s really that simple. I don’t believe that that power should be vested in one individual.”

The last time a North Dakota governor appointed a U.S. senator was in 1992, when Gov. George Sinner appointed the widow of Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D., to fill his seat after his death that September. Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat who had promised not to seek another term in 1992 if the federal budget wasn’t balanced, ran in a special election for the remainder of Burdick’s term, defeating then-state Rep. Jack Dalrymple, who is now North Dakota’s governor.

Sen. Ray Holmberg of Grand Forks, one of 10 GOP lawmakers co-sponsoring the bill, said that while special elections to fill congressional seats have rarely been needed, requiring a similar process for Senate vacancies will bring senators closer to their constituents.

“I would suggest that, ‘good for the goose, good for the gander,’ ” he said. “We should turn to the people.”

Streyle said he’d been asked why the bill shouldn’t also apply also to statewide elected offices – a concern Democrats have raised, citing the number of appointments made by GOP governors in recent years.

“They’re administrative in nature. U.S. Senate is far more important than an auditor or treasurer position in my mind,” he said.

The committee voted 8-6 to give the amended bill a do-pass recommendation, but not before a testy exchange over two amendments offered by Democrats on the committee.

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Rep. Mary Schneider, D-Fargo, tried to introduce an amendment that would require an election to fill a vacated legislative seat, instead of allowing the political party’s district committee to pick a replacement.

But the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, refused to accept the amendment, saying it wasn’t germane to Streyle’s bill.

Schneider suggested that given Streyle’s emphasis on the importance of letting the people decide, it should also apply to legislative and statewide elected offices.

“Otherwise, on this bill, I would say that we have a solution in search of a problem, and that it’s probably not coincidental that it’s coming up at this period of time and it is trying to be restrictive just to the issue of the United States Senate,” she said.

“I resent your implication in the comment you just made,” Kasper shot back.

Kasper did allow the committee to consider an amendment from Rep. Kris Wallman, D-Fargo, that would require a special election to fill vacancies in statewide elected offices. That amendment failed 10-4 on party lines.

Schneider spoke against Streyle’s bill again before the committee’s final vote, saying the Senate appointment process hasn’t been a problem in the past.

Rep. Mary Johnson, R-Fargo, said without knowing the history and reasoning behind the existing law, “the determination of why it needs to be changed is questionable.”

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Kasper asked the clerk to take the roll call vote and ignored Schneider when she tried to keep the discussion going.

“There is no more discussion. We’re taking the roll,” he said sternly.

In addition to the four Democrats on the committee, also voting against the do-pass recommendation on Streyle’s amendment were Johnson and Rep. Vernon Laning, R-Bismarck, who had questioned the bill’s cost.

“Elections aren’t cheap, and neither are special elections,” he said.

The amendment now goes to the full House for consideration.

Related Topics: HEIDI HEITKAMP
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