Topeka — The Senate approved a bill Wednesday clarifying how vacancies in elected offices are filled, over Democratic concerns that the new procedures would give Republicans an unfair advantage.
The bill, which would apply throughout Kansas governments, would require that the governor fill a vacancy with an appointee of the same political party as the officeholder who resigned or died. If that person had switched parties, his or her party affiliation in the latest election would govern the appointment.
Senators approved the bill, 31-9, sending it to the House. Nine of 10 Democrats voted against the measure, concerned that their party would not be able to replace a U.S. senator, even though a Democrat is governor.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, cited a situation last fall in Minnesota. Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed a fellow Independent to the U.S. Senate to fill the vacancy created by the death of Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone.
"It's just a power grab on the part of Republicans," Hensley said of the bill.
Sen. Janis Lee of Kensington was the lone Democrat supporting the measure.
If the bill becomes law, Kansas would join South Carolina and Utah in choosing replacement senators based on the party at the time of election.
"I don't think we want to follow Utah and South Carolina," said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, who tried to remove U.S. Senate appointments from the bill.
Kansas has not had a Democratic U.S. senator since George McGill, who was appointed in 1930, won a six-year term in 1932 and was defeated in 1938. Republicans Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback currently represent Kansas in the Senate.
Seeking the bill was Sen. Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, after a dispute arose over the replacement of Woodson County Sheriff Mike Hinnen, who was elected as a Democrat but switched to Republican after in office.
Hinnen resigned and both parties submitted names for his replacement. Now, the district court will decide whether Republicans or Democrats can nominate his replacement.
Schmidt said while the bill would not solve the Woodson County dispute, it would address future concerns.
"This gets back to the original intent of voters who elected the person because of their political party," Schmidt said.