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Appointed lawmakers couldn’t immediately run for seat under proposed change in Colorado

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Sara Wilson

(Colorado Newsline) Colorado voters could decide this fall whether a state lawmaker appointed to their seat through a vacancy committee should be able to immediately run for a full term or if they should have to wait and forfeit their incumbency advantage.

House Concurrent Resolution 24-1004 passed through committee on a 7-4 vote Monday. It would ask voters to amend the state Constitution by prohibiting an appointed lawmaker from running for a term in their seat immediately following the one they were appointed to fill. They would instead have to wait an election cycle to run.

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A lawmaker appointed in January of an election year, for example, would not be able to run for that same seat that year.

In Colorado, a vacancy committee convenes to pick a replacement for any state lawmaker who leaves office early, a quicker and less expensive option than a special election to fill the seat. A small group of people — often a few dozen or so — from an outgoing lawmaker’s political party pick a new lawmaker to represent the tens of thousands of Coloradans in the district.

Almost all appointed lawmakers then go on to win their seat in the next general election when they run for a full term, bolstered by their incumbency, name recognition and track record in the Legislature.

“Is it a ratification, or is it essentially a rubber stamp because of the power of the vacancy and how the system is working?” asked resolution sponsor Representative Bob Marshall, a Highlands Ranch Democrat.

Under his proposal, vacancy appointments would be a true interim appointment, rather than a “new anointed golden child to hold the seat for the next 8 or 12 years to start a political career.”

This is a problem and to say we’re not doing anything to address the problem is very damaging to trust and confidence in the system.

– Representative Bob Marshall

Nearly a quarter of sitting state lawmakers got their start with a vacancy appointment. Ten were appointed for their current term and have yet to win a general election for their seat.

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Vacancy committees are triggered for various reasons. Last year, former Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno left the chamber to work in Denver Mayor Mike Johnston’s administration. A vacancy committee picked Democrat Senator Dafna Michaelson Jenet, then a representative, to fill his seat, triggering another vacancy committee to select Representative Manny Rutinel to complete Michaelson Jenet’s term in the House.

Representative Tim Hernández, a Denver Democrat, won his appointment after former Representative Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez was elected to Denver City Council midway through her term at the Capitol.

Two representatives, citing a negative work environment, resigned after last fall’s special session, leading to the appointments of Democratic Representatives Chad Clifford and Julia Marvin.

“It is an issue when people look from the outside in. This is a problem and to say we’re not doing anything to address the problem is very damaging to trust and confidence in the system,” Marshall said.

Democratic Representative Kyle Brown of Louisville, who was appointed to replace former Representative Tracey Bernett, said Marshall’s proposal would not create responsive and quality representation.

If it were in place when he was chosen in early 2023, his district “would have had essentially a seat filler for two years. Some of the people who ran in my vacancy, including myself, probably would not have run, but the people who did run might have had a different agenda and may not have felt as directly connected to, especially, the tragedy of the Marshall Fire,” he said.

Representative Jenny Willford, a Northglenn Democrat, said she worries the change could create a barrier for people to put their name in for a vacancy appointment, since they would have to find a new job once the abbreviated term ends.

Four Democrats joined with Republican members of the House State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee to advance the resolution to the House floor. Two-thirds of the Legislature needs to approve it for it to go on November’s ballot, where it would require a 55 percent vote.

Two voter-led initiatives this year would get rid of the vacancy committee process and require special elections to replace outgoing lawmakers. Titles were set for both initiatives, but neither has an approved petition format.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.