CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- House and Senate Judiciary committees worked slowly and methodically in special session Thursday to smooth out rough edges in legislation intended to clarify how vacancies in the U.S. Senate are to be filled (HB201, SB2001).
Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said legislators want to precisely spell out deadlines and timelines for special elections to fill such vacancies -- including elections expected later this summer and fall to fill the unexpired term of late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
Legislators were concerned that early drafts of the bill gave too much authority to the governor to set special election dates and filing deadlines. With the start of a special session at noon Thursday, House and Senate Judiciary committees spent much of the afternoon behind closed doors trying to build in more precise timelines.
A Senate Judiciary amendment adopted Thursday evening mandates the special primary election be held on a Saturday. Given the other timelines in the proposed law, that would set the special primary for Byrd's unexpired term for Aug. 28.
"We've got a delicate balancing act that we're doing here, but it's now coming into place," Kessler said.
Earlier Thursday, Manchin removed a prime point of contention in the bill: Taking out a provision in the early draft of the bill that would waive the requirement to hold a special primary election if only one candidate from a particular political party filed to run.
Kessler said he was concerned that would keep challengers from filing to run against a party favorite in a special primary -- since they might be accused of wasting taxpayer dollars by forcing the special election.
"I think it could have a chilling effect," said Kessler, adding, "I've never considered an election be a waste of taxpayer money."
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant told legislators Thursday that a statewide special election would cost $5.9 million.
The governor's bill specifies that the state will pick up the tab for such special elections, and Manchin also introduced an appropriations bill to transfer that amount from 2009-10 budget surplus to pay for the 2010 special primary.
In addition to eliminating the potential to waive the special primary if only one candidate files, the bill submitted by the Manchin administration Thursday goes into greater detail in specifying dates for future special elections:
If the vacancy occurs in an odd-numbered year, or prior to the close of the primary filing deadline on the last Saturday of January in even-numbered years, the special primary and special elections for the unexpired term would "piggy-back" on that year's regularly scheduled primary and general election days.