Dorothy Moon House State Affairs 2-6-20

Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, argues for changes to how legislator vacancies are filled to the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020.

BOISE — A bill to change the law so local party committees would send one name to the governor instead of three to fill a legislative vacancy is headed to the House floor.

Currently, if a lawmaker steps down the local party legislative district committee to which the lawmaker belonged sends three names to the governor, ranked in order of preference. Governors can and have skipped over the local party’s first choice several times in recent years, including to fill a Senate and a House vacancy in Idaho Falls in 2017, when then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter twice passed over the local GOP’s first choice, Mark Fuller. Most recently, Gov. Brad Little appointed Tim Remington, the local party’s third choice, to the northern Idaho House seat that was vacated after John Green was convicted on felony tax charges.

Bonneville County Republicans passed a resolution last year proposing the change, which would effectively give the power to fill a vacancy to the local committee, and the state party passed it at its winter meeting in January. Now it is on its way through the process after being approved by the House State Affairs Committee Thursday. It would still need to pass the full House and Senate and be signed by the governor to become law.

“The executive branch should not be putting in position legislative vacancies that should be elected by the people,” sponsor Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, told the committee.

Supporters of the change cast it as a separation of powers issue.

“I think it helps secure our place in the three branches of government,” said Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Nampa. “The legislative branch is going to take care of the legislative branch.”

Also, they said precinct committeemen, who are elected by local party members, are closer to the people and know the candidates better.

“We’re actually seeing bottom-up government and bottom-up representation when we use our precinct committees to make these … choices,” said Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett.

The bill’s opponents said it gives too much power to local committees. Speaking on behalf of the Southwest Idaho chapter of the National Organization of Women, Lori Burelle said most states don’t leave it solely up to the local committees, and that an extra check would help ensure they appoint “the most reasonable person instead of the most partisan person.”

The committee voted to advance the bill on what sounded like a party-line voice vote with the Democrats opposed — committee Chairman Rep. Steve Harris, R-Meridian, rejected a request for a roll call on the grounds it was requested too late. However, a couple of eastern Idaho Republicans did express concerns during the debate. Rep. Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, told a story about a time when the Bannock County Republicans’ third choice for a vacant county commission seat was appointed because it turned out the top two were registered Democrats. (Moon’s bill would leave the current process to fill county-level vacancies unchanged and only affect legislative ones.) Armstrong said it is easy for someone to pack a legislative district committee meeting with their supporters and pick someone who might not be the best choice.

Rep. Kevin Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said he viewed it as an improvement on the current process, but the governor should still have some say.

“My concern is we’re taking the governor completely out of the check and balance,” he said.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.