HELENA — A Helena attorney submitted a ballot initiative proposal Tuesday that would change Montana law to take away the governor’s power to fill U.S. Senate vacancies and instead require special elections.
The process was in the spotlight last month when Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock named his lieutenant governor, John Walsh, to replace longtime U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.
Republican legislative leaders criticized Bullock’s selection, saying it was done in secrecy.
“The recent appointment of Walsh as a senator with no input from the public or a vote prompted me to do this,” said attorney James Brown, the proposal’s sponsor.
His plan calls for holding a special primary election within 60 days of the governor being notified of a Senate vacancy. The primary would be followed by a special general election between 50 and 85 days later.
The winner would serve until the next regular general election.
There would be no special election if the vacancy occurs in an even-numbered year between the regular primary and general elections, according to the proposal. Instead, the person elected would take office immediately after the regular general election to fill the remainder of the term.
He is the legal counsel for the Montana Republican Party and previously represented American Tradition Partnership, a conservative group that gained notoriety by filing lawsuits to overturn several state campaign laws and by mailing attack ads against moderate Republican candidates in recent elections.
Brown said the proposal is his own, and not submitted on behalf of the GOP.
The proposal must undergo reviews by the Legislative Services Division and the state Department of Justice.
If it passes legal muster, Brown must gather 24,175 signatures, or 5 percent of state voters, including 5 percent of voters in each of 34 House districts by June 20 to make it on the November ballot.
Brown acknowledged the chances are slim that he will be able to gather that many signatures by the deadline, but he said he wanted to keep the issue alive going into the 2015 legislative session so that lawmakers would pass legislation.
Thirty-six states, including Montana, fill Senate vacancies through gubernatorial appointments, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In the 14 states that hold special elections, nine allow the governor to make interim appointments until the elections take place.
Bullock said he interviewed no candidates before selecting Walsh, and he kept the process quiet because he did not want the appointment to be a distraction from governing.
Montana Republicans had called for an open selection process that allowed more public participation.
Walsh is running for the seat Baucus vacated to become the U.S. ambassador to China. Walsh is up against Dirk Adams of Wilsall and former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger in the Democratic primary, with U.S. Rep. Steve Daines the likely Republican candidate in the general election.
Also on Tuesday, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch approved for signature gathering a proposed change to the Montana Constitution that would require the Legislature to be evenly split between men and women.
The sponsor, John Marshall of Hot Springs, has until June 20 to gather 48,349 voters’ signatures to place the measure on the ballot. The number of signatures required is higher for a constitutional initiative compared with a proposed change in state law.
Marshall, who ran unsuccessfully in 2012 for Montana Senate as a Libertarian, said he is proposing the initiative because the makeup of the Legislature should better reflect that of the state, where women make up about half the population.
He said it will be up to the state and the Legislature to determine how the initiative will be implemented if it passes.
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