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Some in state Legislature want to stop tiny committees from appointing state lawmakers

One in five Colorado representatives were at some point appointed to a statehouse seat
An overhead view of the Colorado Senate chambers. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

The Colorado Legislature is trying to expand the number of people who sit on powerful vacancy committees charged with selecting replacements for state lawmakers who step down in the middle of their terms.

Right now the committees, which have the ability to select a state senator or representative who can for years represent tens of thousands of constituents at the state Capitol, can be made up of as few as three people. Critics say panels that small are undemocratic.

“Mine was 10 people,” Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, said of the vacancy committee that appointed him to his seat in 2019. “It needs to be a broader cross section of people, for sure.”

Nearly 1 in 4 lawmakers in the 2018 legislature had at some point been appointed to a statehouse seat or advanced from the House to the Senate through a vacancy committee appointment, according to a Colorado Sun analysis. State Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, cited the reporting in sponsoring a bill to expand vacancy committees.

The numbers have decreased slightly since then. Nearly one-fifth of current House lawmakers were appointed to their seats at some point through the vacancy process. Nine of 35 senators – or 26% – were also at some point in their statehouse careers hand-picked by the committees.

“I think the process itself is fundamentally flawed,” Williams said.

Sen. ​​Nick Hinrichsen is the latest lawmaker to be appointed to his seat by a vacancy committee. The Pueblo Democrat was sworn in on Feb. 28 to replace Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, who has taken a job at the Pentagon.

Hinrichsen was already running this year to be elected to a full, four-year Senate term in the competitive Senate District 3. Because of the vacancy appointment, he now has an incumbency advantage, underscoring the power of vacancy committees.

Colorado is one of a handful of states that use vacancy committees to fill the seats of politicians who resign in the middle of their terms. Critics call the side-door to the Capitol undemocratic.

Other states use special elections or appointments by the governor or a county commission to fill vacated legislative seats.

Here’s how the vacancy committee process in Colorado, which is used by both Democrats and Republicans, works: Each state House and state Senate district in Colorado has a partisan central committee made up of dozens of precinct captains. The captains are selected at precinct caucuses, the every-other-year gatherings where party insiders convene at a set time and place, which can severely limit turnout.

The central committee can decide how to form a House or Senate district’s vacancy committee. Some vacancy committees are made up of a handful of people while others consist of the district’s entire central committee and more.

The person selected by a vacancy committee in most cases serves out the remainder of the term of the politician whose seat they are filling.

Williams’ measure, House Bill 1044, seeks to increase participation by requiring that, at a minimum, a district’s entire central committee be on the vacancy committee. The change would also apply to vacancy appointments for county commissions and the Colorado Board of Education.

Williams said the goal is to increase the “sample size” of electors. He cited the 2019 appointment of state Rep. Perry Will, a New Castle Republican, by a six-member vacancy committee as an example of a panel that’s far too small.

“It doesn’t mean it was a bad decision,” he said. “I don’t think most of these vacancy committees are acting in bad faith or being malicious. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to safeguard against it.”

State Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, is another one of the measure’s prime sponsors. He was advanced to his seat from the House in 2019 by a vacancy committee that he said had 165 voting members.

“Even though I still don’t think 165 people should be making a decision for 170,000 people on who their state senator should be, it is better than 10,” he said.

Bridges called House Bill 1044 “the best of all the bad options that we have.”

Others don’t see the size of the committees as a problem.

“I’m sure it happens, but those five people are probably the five most active people and the best, most knowledgeable folks within that district,” said state Rep. Alex Valdez, a Denver Democrat who voted no on the proposal.

Changing the rules mid-election cycle could also be confusing and make it more difficult for citizen candidates to participate, Valdez said.

“If the process hasn’t shown itself to be broken, it doesn’t need to be fixed and that’s especially true with democracy,” he said.

House Bill 1044 passed out of the House by a 46-18 vote. It’s now being considered by the Senate and is expected to advance to the governor’s desk.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.