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VOL. 122 | NO. 135 | Friday, July 20, 2007

Panel Suggests Including Others in Governor's Line of Succession

By BETH RUCKER | Associated Press Writer

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NASHVILLE - A panel will recommend that the speakers of the state Senate and House and the state's constitutional officers be included in the line of succession when a governor temporarily surrenders his executive powers.

Gov. Phil Bredesen created the panel to discuss changes because the Tennessee Constitution only allows a transfer of powers upon the death, resignation or removal from office of a governor. It does not allow for a transfer if there is a serious illness or disability.

"I think we've got to assume that no governor is going to willingly give up his job," Attorney General Bob Cooper said at the panel's Wednesday meeting.

Current law holds that when a governor dies, resigns or is removed from office, the speaker of the Senate takes over, followed by the speaker of the House. The proposed changes would only add to that line the secretary of state, comptroller and state treasurer in cases of temporary transfer of power, not permanent transfer of power.

The speakers are elected by their respective bodies and the constitutional officers are elected by a joint session of the Legislature.

The person who succeeds a governor is required to resign his or her legislative job under the practice of separations of power. Under the panel's recommendations, that also would be the case in a temporary transfer of power.The speaker or constitutional officer who becomes governor temporarily would have to be re-elected to their previous position.

"You have a serious separation of power issue otherwise," Cooper said.

Under the recommendations by the panel, the speakers of the Senate and the House would have the option of declining to accept the governor's position temporarily, but not constitutional officers. The speakers are not allowed to decline under the procedure for permanent transfer of power.

As a perk, the temporary governor would be entitled to the governor's salary and benefits, which include a pension. The governor could voluntarily transfer power to the next in line by notifying the speakers of the Senate and House and the secretary of state in writing. He would reassume his powers in the same manner.

In a situation where the governor is incapacitated, the state attorney general, with the approval of the secretary of state, comptroller and treasurer, would petition the state Supreme Court to declare the governor unable to perform his or her duties. The governor would then petition the Supreme Court to prove he is again able to perform his or her duties.

The governor has asked the panel to make recommendations by October so the state can begin the lengthy process of amending the constitution. Constitutional amendments must pass in two consecutive two-year General Assemblies, and must be approved by voters in a gubernatorial election year. The next gubernatorial election is in 2010.

"It needs to be simple," said former Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter, a member of the panel. "You've got to pass this all over Tennessee."

Tennessee's muddled succession process became apparent in August when Bredesen was hospitalized for several days with an illness that may have been caused by a tick bite. Bredesen imposed a two-week news blackout to maintain "a zone of privacy," but said he was not incapacitated or unable to do his job.

Andy Bennett, chief deputy attorney general, said no Tennessee governor ever appears to have been incapacitated while in office. Only Gov. Austin Peay died in office in 1927.

McWherter said that in 1993, Democratic state Sen. John Wilder, who was speaker of the Senate at the time, urged McWherter to leave office so Wilder could nominate him to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Al Gore when he became vice president.

McWherter said Wilder told them he would allow Speaker of the House Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, to become governor. Naifeh, a member of the panel, acknowledged Wilder's plan. Wilder could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Panel member Steve Elkins, Bredesen's legal counsel, questioned whether the proposed temporary transfer of power allowed for any political abuse.

"There's going to be a lot of scrutiny over this process," Tennessee law professor and panel member Glenn Reynolds said.

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