Erik Schelzig, Associated Press, KnoxNews.com
January 10, 2008

NASHVILLE – Republicans reacted with skepticism today to a Democratic proposal to allow for the temporary replacement of state lawmakers who are unable to serve.

Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said his proposal would pave the way for a temporary handoff of power for the likes of Sen. Ophelia Ford, another Memphis Democrat who missed much of last session and is likely to be absent for several weeks of the current one with an unspecified illness.

“This is a dangerous precedent to set,” said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville.

Ramsey, who is in his second year running the Senate after decades of Democratic control, said lawmakers might decide to step aside to avoid politically unpopular votes. He also said he doesn’t understand the urgency of Kyle’s proposal.

“This has been going on since 1796 and it hadn’t been a problem until 2008,” he said. “The system has worked, so I don’t know that it’s time to change it.”

Republicans and Democrats each hold 16 seats in the upper chamber, along with one independent.

Under Kyle’s proposal, lawmakers could either opt for a temporary replacement, or two-thirds of the members of the chamber could vote to force a temporary handoff.

If lawmakers were to voluntarily step aside they would be given the power to name their own replacements. If the body were to vote to exclude a member, the governor would appoint the replacement.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris, of Collierville, said he is uncomfortable with the proposed avenues for naming replacements.

“You give the power of appointment to somebody who might be incompetent?” he said. “I don’t think the people are going to like that.”

Kyle has expressed frustration about Ford’s refusal to disclose her illness. Ford’s absence is also more noticeable than when other lawmakers have missed time in the past because of the tight makeup of the Senate.

House Minority Leader Jason Mumpower called the proposal politically motivated.

“This is kind of a knee jerk reaction to the fact that he’s short a vote or two,” said Mumpower.

Rep. Ulysses Jones, a Memphis Democrat and chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee, said he wants to ensure the measure would give lawmakers like Ford an opportunity to return if their health improves.

Lawmakers this session are expected to evaluate a proposal to change the state constitution to allow governors to hand off power if they become incapacitated. There is currently no provision in the constitution to allow for a temporary replacement of the governor.

Senate Democrats don’t believe it would take a constitutional amendment to implement their proposal because lawmakers are given more leeway about who serves in the General Assembly.

Kyle’s bill would make the same provisions for lawmakers away on military duty. Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, missed the 2005 session while serving on National Guard duty in Iraq.

Voters don’t always see absence from the Legislature as a bad thing. Former House Majority Leader Tommy Burnett, D-Jamestown, won re-election in 1984 while serving a federal prison sentence on tax charges.

More details as they develop online and in Friday’s News Sentinel.

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