Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Should governor be empowered to fill legislative vacancies?

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

The past couple of years have seen a steady stream of resignations from the state Legislature, for one reason or another.

There’s already been one resignation this year and two state senators are in trouble with the law and could depart. When a vacancy occurs, the governor calls two special elections to fill it.

When a Senate seat is vacated, it’s often filled by a member of the Assembly, and the new senator must resign from that house, triggering another special election cycle. Special elections are expensive, and during the months-long interim, seats remain vacant, sometimes affecting legislative businesses.

That’s particularly true now. On paper, Democrats hold more than two-thirds of the seats in both legislative houses and can move certain kinds of legislation, such as constitutional amendments, that require supermajority votes without having to garner Republican support, but vacancies can interfere.

With two Democratic senators on leave because of criminal changes and his supermajority now in suspense, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg wants to amend the state constitution to allow the governor to fill legislative vacancies, as long as appointees are from the same party as the departed legislator and are not rejected by the house to which they are appointed.

Superficially, that sounds reasonable. After all, the governor can fill U.S. Senate vacancies and those in other state offices, so why shouldn’t that power extend to the Legislature or even the congressional delegation?

However, as in sports, changes in a game’s rules also can affect the outcome – which explains why politicians inside and outside the Capitol are always tinkering with election laws.

California recently changed its primary election system, modified legislative term limits, and shifted the decennial redrawing of legislative and congressional districts from legislators to an independent commission.

All of those “reforms” aimed to affect election and policy outcomes, but their net impact remains unclear. Filling legislative vacancies by appointment would also affect the political game – as Steinberg hopes.

He clearly wants to protect Democratic supermajorities by making it impossible for Republicans to win more seats in low-turnout special elections, as they did in a special Senate election last year. But rule changes always have unintended consequences.

Steinberg assumes that there always would be a Democratic governor making the appointments and that the Legislature’s partisan interests would be protected by requiring appointees to come from the same party and by the power to reject appointees.

Overall, however, the rule change would strengthen a governor’s hand in inevitable squabbles with the Legislature – and Steinberg, by the way, would need a supermajority vote to put it on the ballot this year.