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N.D. House passes bill requiring special election for U.S. Senate vacancies

BISMARCK – The North Dakota House backed legislation Tuesday that would require a special election to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy, a bill Democrats have panned as an attempt to dissuade U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp from running for governor in 2016.

Representatives voted 67-25 to pass House Bill 1181 after debate over whether the same special-election process applies to U.S. House vacancies.

The bill would require the governor to call a special election within 95 days of when a Senate vacancy occurs, unless the vacancy occurs within 95 days of the end of the Senate term, in which case the seat would be filled in the next regular election.

Current state law allows the governor to appoint someone until the seat can be filled in the next regular election, which would allow Heitkamp to pick her own replacement should she run for governor and win.

Heitkamp, a former North Dakota attorney general and tax commissioner who lost a bid for governor in 2000, hasn’t said whether she’s considering a run. A statement from her office Tuesday said she’s focused on her Senate work.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, has said a possible run by Heitkamp in 2016 “was on my mind” when he crafted the bill, but it wasn’t the primary reason.

“This is about restoring the power of the people and allowing them to decide,” he said Tuesday.

Fourteen others states use a special election to fill a Senate vacancy, and similar bills are being heard in Montana and Maryland, said Rep. Karen Rohr, R-Mandan, who carried the bill. She said a similar process is already in place for filling U.S. House vacancies. .

However, Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, pointed out that state law regarding U.S. House vacancies calls for a special election only in the event of “a catastrophic circumstance in which one hundred or more representatives across the United States are no longer able to serve.”

Mock questioned what would happen if a vacancy were to occur by resignation, death or other means. He also noted that the state constitution allows the governor to fill a vacancy by appointment if no other provision exists in the constitution or law.

“I’m a little concerned with the inconsistency of this bill,” he said, suggesting the special election requirement should also apply to filling vacancies in statewide offices and legislative seats, both of which are done by appointment.

But Streyle and Rep. Jim Kasper, R-Fargo, the committee’s chairman, said the U.S. Constitution requires a special election to fill U.S. House vacancies, and that has supremacy over the state constitution.

“So we’re putting it on par with what is required in the U.S. House. I don’t see why that’s bad public policy,” Streyle said.

The bill still needs approval from the state Senate.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.