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When legislators vacate offices, constituents pay a double price

For the second time in two months a Massachusetts legislator has resigned to accept another post, leaving behind more than just an empty seat. The Feb. 28 resignation of Timothy A. Bassett of Lynn, like that in early January of Boston's Doris Bunte, means weeks without a voice in the state House of Representatives for thousands of people.

Both were veteran lawmakers, having served seven terms in the House. Each was doubtless concerned about the impact of resignation, especially so short a time after being reelected. Yet, short of staying on in the House and passing up opportunities to take on new public-service jobs, which are perhaps more challenging and certainly more financially rewarding, there was nothing else they could do.

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But Mrs. Bunte's resignation to become executive director of the Boston Housing Authority and Mr. Bassett's legislative departure to become head of the state's Government Land Bank Commission spotlight anew what may be a major shortcoming in state election laws. Legislature vacancies occur fairly frequently, and they have resulted in eight special elections -- seven in the House and one in the Senate -- in the last two years.

An average special election for the House costs the commonwealth in the vicinity of $30,000 for printing of ballots and nomination papers and payment for keeping polling places open extra hours. On top of this, the municipalities involved have the expense of poll workers and vote counters.

Current state law does not mandate the filling of an empty legislative seat. Although ordinarily a special election is called, except when the term involved is in its final few months, the matter is pretty much left to the discretion of the lawmaking chamber's presiding officer.

Last year, when State Rep. Jeremiah F. Cahir, a Bourne Democrat, passed on in late March, House Speaker Thomas W. McGee (D) of Lynn chose not to call a special election on grounds the session would be nearly over by the time a new representative could be seated. As it worked out, however, the lawmaking year stretched all the way through December.

Thus, the people of Bourne, Falmouth, and Mashpee, which comprise the Third Barnstable District, were without House representation for nine months. During that period more than 95 percent of the 1984 laws went through the House.

Obviously, no legislative leader, no matter how well intentioned, should be able to decide that an election to fill a House or Senate vacancy is, for whatever reason, not necessary.

The new House speaker, George Keverian (D) of Everett, has moved expeditiously to pave the way for filling both the Bunte and Bassett seats. But the established process, dictated by law and custom, is a prolonged one, taking more than three months from the time a special election is called to the date of the balloting.

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Mrs. Bunte's successor in the Seventh Suffolk District, comprising much of Boston's Roxbury section, will be chosen April 9, with the primary set for March 12.

Mr. Bassett's 10th Essex District seat will be filled on June 4, after a May 7 party primary.

A shorter campaign timetable would appear to be in the best interest of the legislator-less district. Only 150 voter signatures are needed to nominate a candidate for state representative, and 300 for senator. Thus, it hardly seems necessary to take two months to get to the primary and then another month until the final vote.

A week at a minimum might be shaved off the time between the primary and special election, and the overall campaign shortened by perhaps two more weeks in the interest of giving residents of the district involved the full measure of representation to which they are entitled.

But even if the special-election calendar were shortened by a few weeks -- something certainly worthy of lawmaker consideration -- it would not be the full answer to ensuring uninterrupted representation. To achieve this, a legislator taking a position elsewhere could be compelled by law to stay on in his or her lawmaking responsibilities until such time as a successor is qualified.

Under the present setup no election can be called until the chair is actually empty. This need not be the case, since the law could be rewritten to provide that the effective date of any resignation would be after a successor has been elected and is ready to be sworn in.

Were such an arrangement in effect, there is nothing to suggest that Mrs. Bunte's new $50,000-a-year post and Mr. Bassett's $47,000-a-year job would not have waited for them.

Mrs. Bunte, who landed the highly responsible housing authority job last fall after it was too late to withdraw from the ballot, asked constituents not to vote for her but rather support a would-be successor running on stickers. That did not work, and as a result she had little choice but to wait until January, when the newly elected legislature was in place, and then tender her resignation.

The Bassett situation was quite different. He did not apply for the land-bank post until nearly a month after his House reelection and did not get it until mid-January, about six weeks before he finally quit the House.

When a person runs for elective office, he or she clearly has an obligation to constituents not to leave them, part-way through a term, without representation. Were lawmakers statutorily compelled to stick around until replacements are elected, those who are shopping for something better elsewhere when they run for office might think twice before campaigning if they knew it might not be all that easy to quit before completing their term.

An alternative to holding onto a legislator who wants out might be empowering the governor to name an interim representative or senator to serve until the departee's successor is elected. The short-term appointee, in all fairness, should be from the same party as the seat's former occupant.

Such provision for a temporary legislative fill-in would require amending the Massachusetts constitution.

To his considerable credit, former state Sen. Allan R. McKinnon (D) of Weymouth did not seek reelection last fall, since prospects for his completing another term appeared slim. The veteran lawmaker reportedly is in line for the $60,000-a-year chairmanship of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

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