JEFFERSON CITY - With speculation heating up that Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder could soon be headed to Congress, Democrats joined Republicans on Tuesday to advance a measure that would require a special election to replace any statewide official who vacates their office.
Kinder is one of several candidates who has expressed interest in running to replace U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican who represents southeastern Missouri. Just weeks after she was re-elected in November, Emerson announced that she will resign from the House of Representatives to head the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon will have to call a special election to fill Emerson's seat. There won't be a primary for that vote, as local party members will choose nominees for the Republicans and Democrats. The district is heavily Republican, which means that whoever receives the nod from the party will likely be headed to Washington.
But if local officials throw their support behind Kinder, who is widely seen as a frontrunner in the contest, it is unclear how a new lieutenant governor would be chosen if Kinder were to resign.
Republican lawmakers insist that state law already requires the governor to call for a special election. But Nixon has said that the state Constitution gives him the authority to appoint someone to fill out the rest of Kinder's current term, which officially began on Monday.
Members of a House elections panel voted 11-1 on Tuesday to move forward a bill that seems to be a middle ground between the two positions.
The measure would explicitly allow the governor to appoint a temporary "acting" official if a vancancy occurred in the office of lieutenant governor, treasurer, secretary of state or auditor. That appointee would serve until a special election in which the voters would select a new official to serve out the remainder of the vacated term.
The legislation would forbid the appointee from running in the special election, but they could reclaim the office by running in the next regular election.
That means the govenor would be able appoint someone, either Republican or Democrat, to Kinder's seat and that person would serve until a special election is held in November 2014. The appointee would not be able to run in the 2014 election, but could be a candidate in the regular election two years after that.
The House committee took the unusual step Tuesday of voting on the bill on the same day that it heard public testimony, meaning it could debated by the full House as soon as next week. And the measure has provision that puts it into effect as soon as the governor signs it, instead of the late August effective date that most bills carry.
"I think we need to fix the law immediately because there's uncertainty," said sponsoring Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem. "It puts the power back to the people so they can choose who supports them at least half way through that term."
But Rep. Stacey Newman, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said Republicans were trying to rush the bill for partisan reasons. She said lawmakers would not have made the measure such a priority if a Republican were making the appointment to fill Kinder's seat.
"I believe that the public needs to know that there is a political backbone to this legislation," said Newman, D-St. Louis County.
Even though approving the bill would mean that Nixon would have to sign away some of his appointment authority, Smith said the governor's office is somewhat supportive of the measure. A spokesman for the governor declined to comment on Nixon's position.