Lieutenant governor pick must be confirmed, lawyer says

LEGISLATURE: Special session might be called on matter.

July 8, 2009 

The Legislature's top lawyer said this week that the man Gov. Sarah Palin picked to replace Sean Parnell as lieutenant governor can't take office July 26 unless lawmakers first say it's OK.

Some legislators are calling for an emergency special session so they can do just that. It would let them tackle another issue too: Whether to try and override Palin's veto of $28.6 million in federal stimulus money for energy cost relief.

On both counts, legislators are running out of time.

Parnell soon becomes governor and needs a No. 2. When Palin announced she was leaving the job, she said she wanted the new lieutenant governor to be Military and Veteran Affairs Commissioner Craig Campbell.

The problem is: Palin had already chosen someone else.

In February, she selected Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt, who runs the state's prisons, as next in line for the lieutenant governor's job, and the Legislature confirmed him.

Palin can choose Campbell instead, the Legislature's director of legal services, Tamara Cook, wrote in an opinion Tuesday. But Campbell can't take office until the state House and Senate vote to confirm him, too, she said.

Cook conceded that the question is a muddy one involving unresolved legal questions. The Department of Law has been working on its own analysis of the law since Friday.

"We're ensuring that the proper constitutional and statutory procedures are followed," Palin said in a written statement Wednesday. "The Department of Law is overseeing the transition process so it's seamless and we stay true to Alaska's Constitution and statutes.

It's a complicated game of musical chairs in the seat of state leadership that caught most players by surprise.

FOCUS ON PRISONS

Schmidt said Wednesday that he didn't expect Palin's announcement last Friday that she will resign July 26. He wants to remain corrections commissioner to oversee projects such as construction of a new prison in Point MacKenzie, he said, and never thought he'd be needed to serve as lieutenant governor for anything other than a short-term emergency.

Schmidt, who went to the same high school as Palin, said he also worried about how people would perceive him being appointed, long-term, to an elected office.

"I wouldn't want to be in a position where all I have to do is fight for credibility," he said. Still, Schmidt said he'd be willing to fill the vacancy, temporarily, until the Legislature has a chance to confirm Campbell.

URGENCY TO ACT

Lawmakers must now decide whether to meet in a special session to vote on Campbell for lieutenant governor.

The House Judiciary Committee plans to hold a confirmation hearing July 20 -- six days before Parnell is sworn in -- though it takes both the House and Senate to confirm a candidate.

"The governor quit and went fishing," Judiciary Chair Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, said in a statement Wednesday. "Governor Palin failed to leave specific instructions, so the Legislature is stepping in to bring order to the constitutional chaos she created."

Palin chief of staff Mike Nizich, called Ramras' statement "irresponsible."

"It's not like the governor's on vacation," he said. "She's in contact with this office just like normal. ... She has asked the attorney general's office to go over this with a fine-tooth comb, and ensure that the process that is in place is legal, defensible and they're working on that right now."

Lawmakers adjourned their session in April and normally wouldn't return to Juneau until January. House Speaker Mike Chenault said he favors calling a special session, though chances are slim of doing so before Parnell steps in as governor.

"It really got confusing whenever (Palin) nominated someone else besides Schmidt to be the designee," he said

Chenault and other legislators said Campbell's not a controversial choice and would sail to confirmation.

So why not wait and confirm him next year?

If Campbell becomes lieutenant governor without being confirmed, everything he does, including approving ballot initiatives, will be subject to a legal challenge, said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.

THE ENERGY VETO

The Legislature could handle the confirmation in a single day, Wielechowski said. But then he remembered another piece of business lawmakers would need to tackle next time they meet: Overriding Palin's veto.

In May Palin said no to more than $28 million in stimulus money lawmakers appropriated earlier in the spring, but legislators can overturn that decision with a 75 percent vote to do so in joint session.

Larry Persily -- a former Palin aide who now works for Anchorage Rep. Mike Hawker -- sent a memo to legislators saying officials with the federal Department of Energy have said they don't want to wait until January to learn if Alaska wants the money or not.


Contact Kyle Hopkins at khopkins@adn.com. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adnvillage.

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