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Connecticut Voters Win Power To Fill Senate Vacancies

By JON LENDER

June 27, 2009

In a dramatic reversal Friday, Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced she has signed a bill that she and her allies had previously belittled: a measure that takes away her appointment power to fill vacancies for U.S. Senate.

The bill requires direct elections to choose successors for senators who leave office during their terms.

Rell and her Republican legislative allies had denounced the bill recently after the House and the Senate, both controlled by Democrats, approved it by strong majorities. The Republicans called it an unwarranted infringement on the governor's power.

On Friday, however, Rell backed off. "This law is consistent with my long-held belief that we should take every action possible to involve our citizens in their government," she said. "Although the current process ... has worked well ... for many decades, this bill gives directly to the people of Connecticut the decision on who would fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate."

Rell's press office offered no explanation for her change of mind.

Privately, Democratic legislators had expressed confidence that they could have mustered the required two-thirds majority necessary in both chambers if Rell vetoed the vacancy bill. There was even a sense that they looked forward to a public victory to boost them during what is expected to be a contentious and difficult period of battling Rell over the state budget.

The bill calls for a direct election by voters to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy within 160 days of the vacancy. Or it would take place at the next regular state or municipal election, if that election took place 63 to 125 days from the date of the Senate vacancy.

If the vacancy occurs in the last year of the Senate term, the governor nominates a candidate to serve the rest of the term, subject to approval by two-thirds of the members in both chambers of the legislature. If the Senate seat is already on the ballot at the next state election, and the vacancy occurs less than 63 days before the election, no special election will be held.

Republican legislators had attacked the bill in unusually strong terms during the final weeks of the legislative session that ended June 3. They decried it as a "brazen power grab" and potentially costly to taxpayers. They said the current system in which the governor appoints the successor of a departing senator to fill the vacancy until the next congressional election, in an even-numbered year had worked well, and that changing it would tinker with the separation of powers.

Rell's spokesman, Chris Cooper, called the bill "blatant, partisan politics." Cooper said that the current system "has worked well for 50 years, and the governor believes that there are many, many more important things for the legislature" to do.

A leading Democratic proponent of the bill, state Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chair of the legislature's government administration and elections committee, praised Rell for signing the bill.

"Gov. Rell clearly recognized the importance of this legislation and has agreed with the legislature that the authority to elect an official to serve in the United States Senate should rest with the people of our state," Slossberg said. "I thank her for upholding the interest of the electorate, doing the right thing and signing this bill."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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