published Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Tennessee lawmakers seek more elected posts

NASHVILLE — In separate bills, some Republican state legislators are pushing to have more state offices filled by popular election instead of appointment — including the state attorney general, members of the state Board of Education and, maybe, future justices of the state Supreme Court.

The bill on appellate court judges, filed Tuesday, is the latest popular election measure and perhaps most novel in approach. Under the bill (HB1767), Tennessee would return to popular election of appellate court judges if voters reject a proposed constitutional amendment on judicial selection this November.

It is basically "raising the stakes" for the statewide referendum on what will be designated as "Amendment 2" on the Nov. 4 statewide ballot, said Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who credits House sponsor Rep. Courtney Rogers, R-Hendersonville, with the initial idea.

"It lets voters know they're choosing one or the other," Bell said.

If the amendment is approved, the state's top judges would be appointed by the governor when a vacancy occurs, subject to confirmation by the state House and Senate. Those who subsequently seek a new term would face a "retention election" with voters casting their ballots on a yes-or-no basis.

On the other hand, the bill provides that failure of the constitutional amendment in November would trigger a return to contested, partisan election of the state's top judges -- a notion Bell supports.

"It was good enough from 1870 until 1971," he said Wednesday. In the latter year, Tennessee first adopted a system of gubernatorial appointment coupled with retention elections -- with some of the details changing over subsequent years.

Gov. Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey are among advocates of Amendment 2 and are expected to be active in a "yes on two" campaign now in its organizational phase.

Other bills on moving officials from appointive to elected status include two by Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains.

One of them (SB1879) calls for popular election of state Board of Education members -- one in each of the state's nine congressional districts. Board members currently are all appointed by the governor. Niceley said that, with the board's powers growing in recent years, he believes it's appropriate they be "accountable to the people." He cited, for example, pending legislation that would let the board grant approval to charter schools even if they are rejected by local school boards.

Bell has a separate proposal (SB1334) that would let the speakers of the House and Senate make three appointments each to the Board of Education, leaving the governor with three as well. Another Bell bill (SB1602) would also take away the governor's authority to appoint all members of the State Textbook Commission, allowing the speakers to appoint three members each.

The other Niceley bill is a revised version of past legislation calling for popular election of local school superintendents (SB1702). The new bill would authorize 10 school systems statewide to have elected school superintendents on a "pilot project" basis. Superintendents are appointed by the local school board under current law. The bill would allow a change to elected superintendents in districts where voters first approve the change from appointment to election in a local referendum.

Niceley acknowledges that some have accused him of being "all over the board" when it comes to electing officials because he is also pushing a bill that would have the Republican and Democratic nominees to the U.S. Senate chosen by state legislators rather than popular vote. But there's a difference, he said.

The senator said he generally supports popular election of officials and laments that only one state public official is now chosen in a contested election -- the governor. The state's two U.S. Senators are also elected statewide -- offices set up at the federal level rather than the state level.

In supporting selection of U.S. Senate nominees by the Republican and Democratic caucuses of the state Legislature, Niceley says he is "deferring to the founding fathers." Until passage of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919, senators were selected by state legislatures.

Niceley's U.S. Senate bill (SB471) has faced considerable criticism, but is still officially scheduled for a Senate floor vote in March.

Meanwhile, the state Senate is expected to vote next week on a proposed amendment (SJR123) to the Tennessee Constitution that provides for popular election of the state attorney general, who is now appointed by the state Supreme Court. Last year, the Senate approved a separate proposal that calls for the attorney general to be appointed by vote of the state Legislature.

"I want to see both options on the table for the next General Assembly, especially in light of the vote that will be taken on the judicial selection process in the next election," said Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, who is sponsor of SJR123.

A constitutional amendment must be approved by two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly. If Beavers' amendment is approved along with the previous proposal for having an attorney general appointed by the Legislature, the 109th General Assembly -- which will convene in 2015 -- would make the ultimate decision on whether one or the other goes to a statewide vote for approval.

Contact Tom Humphrey at humphreyt@knoxnews.com or 615-242-7782.

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