The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 4, 2010

Tomblin to become acting governor

CHARLESTON — West Virginians essentially chose a new state chief executive when they voted to send Gov. Joe Manchin to the U.S. Senate, but his Tuesday win has also forced to the forefront questions about the succession process.

Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin will become acting governor sometime after officials certify the results of his fellow Democrat’s win. That process begins next week.

But Manchin on Wednesday ruled out calling a special legislative session to resolve legal questions arising from the imminent succession.

Those include whether West Virginia can or should hold a special election for governor before 2012, when the office is already on the ballot. There’s also the question of Tomblin serving in both the executive and legislative branches without violating the constitutional separation of powers.

Several of the Legislature’s top lawyers told a House-Senate study committee last month that the West Virginia Constitution and relevant state law do not allow for a special election before 2012.

The lawyers disagreed over whether the statutes conflicted with the constitutional provisions. They also differed as to whether Tomblin could remain Senate president while also serving as governor.

At a Wednesday press conference, Manchin said there’s not enough consensus among lawmakers to justify a special session. But House Speaker Rick Thompson is among those who want one.

The Wayne County Democrat cited how the Legislature, at Manchin’s request, allowed for the just-conducted special election. The June death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd triggered that action, under the argument that voters should decide who serves out the two years remaining in the late Democrat’s six-year term.

With about half of Manchin’s second term unfinished, Thompson said the need for an early special election is even more pressing. To do otherwise “would be entirely inconsistent with what we just did in the U.S. Senate race,” Thompson said.

Thompson, a lawyer, also questioned whether Tomblin could occupy both posts fully. He said that Tomblin’s primary job would remain as the Senate’s chief, with him acting as governor only to keep the executive branch operating pending the next election.

“Your secondary job would be to act as governor,” Thompson said. “The constitution envisioned that to be a temporary situation.”

Tomblin did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. The 58-year-old Democrat has represented Logan County in the Legislature since 1974. He became Senate president in 1995 and since 2003 has held that post longer than anyone in state history.

Thompson, like Tomblin, was already among several expected candidates for governor in 2012, as the state constitution bars Manchin from seeking a third consecutive term. The state GOP, which hold a minority of House and Senate seats, also wants a special session.

A South Charleston lawyer, Thornton Cooper, had earlier threatened to sue if Manchin won and there was no election to succeed him in 2011. Cooper argues that waiting until 2012 would disenfranchise voters. Thompson said the Legislature should “iron out the inconsistencies.”

“I think that’s something we should take care of,” Thompson said. “Otherwise, someone will sue and the courts will decide.”

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