Newly elected West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and his colleagues have until Dec. 27 to respond to a lawsuit filed by state constituents calling for a special gubernatorial election before 2012.
Though Tomblin no longer has legislative power as WV Senate President, his appointment as governor has garnered him significant influence within the state government. If left with all the powers of his two positions, Tomblin could cast a vote for a bill while simultaneously having veto power over the legislative body.
The potential for a term lasting just under two years with Tomlin as Acting Governor, has raised concerns among many of the state's voters.
The WV Citizens Action Group has been one of the first to take legal action. The government watchdog organization named Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, House Speaker Rick Thompson and the Acting Governor in a lawsuit presented to the State Supreme Court in November.
WV CAG Executive Director Gary Zuckett said that the succession of power in the state has been a source of contention among some residents.
"We've had several organizations come up and thank us for filing," he said. "It's important that the state have an elected governor before 2012."
After former governor Joe Manchin III (D) was elected to fill the late Robert C. Byrd's vacated seat in the United States Senate, constituents and special interest groups began calling for the right to elect Manchin's successor.
The perception that there is a lack of constituent involvement in the gubernatorial
succession triggered the lawsuit from the CAG. Zuckett said the opposition to Tomblin's appointment is "nothing personal," noting that the CAG feels the democratic process is more important than any one individual.
"If we don't have an elected governor, the voters will always wonder if we do have a separation of powers," he said. "There are checks and balances built in to the way our government is structured, and when those break down, it can create big problems for the state."
Though a special election would cost the state millions of dollars, people like Zuckett think it's a small price to pay for warranted representation.
"I know some people are concerned about the price," Zuckett said. "I think the price of keeping our government intact is worth it."
Secretary of State Tennant said she and her colleagues have receive daily calls from constituents in support of a special gubernatorial vote.
"When people comment, their comment is always for an election," she said.
Tennant said her personal opinion is that "people should have their fingerprint on state government, and you do it through election."
The views of the states' citizens vary widely on the topic. Many, like Cindy Bowe of Lewisburg, W.Va., are calling for the opening of the gubernatorial seat to be treated just as the vacated senatorial seat was after Senator Byrd's passing.
"I think that consistency would be appropriate in this matter," Bowe said. "If a special election was necessary to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat of the Honorable Robert C. Byrd, it seems practical that the same measure would be applied to the vacant governor's seat."
Some don't mind Tomblin's new position and would rather not pay to choose his replacement.
"I believe Tomblin should keep his position as governor until 2012," said Don Scalise, a schoolteacher originally from East Bank, W.Va. "A special election would place an unnecessary burden on the taxpayers."
State code, according to Tomblin, allows him to remain acting governor until 2012, and does not require a special election.
Tomblin can keep the governor's seat only if he also stays in the Senate President position.
To combat the controversy, Senate Democrats recently decided to propose the position of an Acting Senate President. The legislature would elect the officer, who would oversee the legislative body when the Senate President has to serve in a gubernatorial capacity.
Jeff Kessler, Senate Judiciary Chairman, has been nominated by the Senate Democrats
for the position.
No official decisions regarding the matter will be made until January 2011, when the WV
Supreme Court reconvenes and the Senate will vote on the Acting Senate President