Gov. Jay Nixon is still mulling over a permanent replacement for former state Auditor Tom Schweich.
Nixon appointed his former chief of staff John Watson to serve as interim auditor late last month. Nixon told reporters on Monday in Wentzville that he’s getting more focused on selecting someone to fill out the rest of Schweich’s term.
“[We’re] going through a thorough but appropriately timed process here to make sure we get somebody that can do that job and do it well,” Nixon said. “Now that we’re into the next week, we’ll begin in earnest looking for candidates and making sure we get the right person.”
Schweich died on Feb. 26 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had been in his second term in office for a little more than a month.
Even though Schweich was a Republican who didn’t face major party opposition in his re-election bid, Nixon is not required to select a Republican as a permanent replacement. Possible appointees include state Treasurer Clint Zweifel, St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones, former state Rep. John Wright, D-Rocheport, former Office of Administration director Kelvin Simmons and former Auditor Susan Montee.
(If Zweifel were Nixon’s choice, the governor would also get to select someone for treasurer. Because of term limits, Zweifel cannot run for that office again next year.)
There are some parallels between the effort to replace Schweich and what happened in Illinois late last year.
After winning re-election to a second term, Illinois state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka died before she was sworn into office. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner ultimately picked a GOP replacement, but only after the Democratic legislature changed the state law requiring a special election for the comptroller’s office in 2016.
Democrats in Illinois argued that it wasn’t fair to voters for Rauner to appoint somebody who wasn’t elected to serve for a full term. Schweich’s replacement would serve most of the auditor's four-year term without being elected.
When asked if the legislature to consider passing legislation to require a special elections when a statewide officeholder dies early in a term, Nixon replied: “I’m focused right now on what the constitutional powers and what the statutory responsibilities are.”
“And that’s to find the right person to do this important job. I’m going to get to doing that,” Nixon said. “We’ve been a state since 1821. There have been folks who have passed in office. And one of the responsibilities of the governor is to make sure the continued operation of government happens – and that’s why I made the temporary appointment I did last week.”
“I’ll take with great seriousness the responsibility I have to choose the right person,” he added. “And whatever happens in other years or other times is for someone else to be concerned about.”
When he was in the Missouri House, U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, had pushed for legislation to require a special election for statewide vacancies. Those efforts, though, never made it into law.
'We don’t need to have municipal courts being debtors’ prisons'
In the wake of a Department of Justice report of Ferguson Police Department, Nixon also continued advocating for changes in the state’s municipal court system.
During a speech to the Missouri Bar Association last week, Nixon called for lowering the percentage of fine revenue a city could keep in its budget. He called for even more changes on Monday.
“One of the measures moving through the legislature this year is to lower the cap on the amount of revenue that a municipality can have,” Nixon said. “But I think we’re looking at some other things in that area – and procedures involving conflict of interest. Whether it’s things involving how you can have court hours that are more useful and beneficial to folks, and how to get rid of folks in essence going to jail for debts.”
“We don’t need to have municipal courts being debtors’ prisons,” he added. “That makes it very difficult for those people to work and move forward.”
Like other observers, Nixon said the problems cited in the report aren’t limited to Ferguson.
“We’ve certainly seen this challenge of a huge amount of revenue, about costs relative to the population, about warrants and whatnot in other jurisdictions,” Nixon said. “While Ferguson was the focal point of the Department of Justice study, I do not believe the challenges as represented in that report are singularly in that municipal court.”
When asked if the lives of black St. Louisans would improve if only Ferguson’s police department was forced to change, Nixon said “This is about making a court system with the purpose that it’s there for.”
“And as I said time and time again, a number of things need to be done,” Nixon said. “The court system is one. Making sure that we have modern policing through the region. We need to make sure we have an education system that delivers. We need to make sure we have health care that delivers. There’s not going to be one single thing.”
“Municipal courts is one area where tangible, real, specific progress can be made to return the courts to what their actual responsibility is – which is to enforce municipal ordinances, not to make revenue and put people in debtors’ prisons,” he added.