AUGUSTA — A legislative committee on Wednesday split votes on a bill that would prohibit the secretary of state from running for governor or federal office during his or her term.

The State and Local Government Committee voted 5-4 in favor of the amended version of L.D. 947, which is sponsored by Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville. Johnson’s original bill would have prohibited all three of the state’s constitutional officers — secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer — from running for higher office.

While Johnson argued that the attorney general and treasurer face severe time constraints in trying to hold a full-time job and campaign, he said the secretary of state faces the additional burden of the appearance of conflict of interest.

“There’s merit in not having someone in office overseeing their own elections,” he said.

Last year, all three of the state’s Republican constitutional officers ran for the U.S. Senate seat that came open when U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe annoiunced her retirement. Secretary of State Charlie Summers defeated Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, Attorney General William Schneider and three others in a Republican primary.

Summers lost in the general election to independent U.S. Sen. Angus King.

Johnson said he wasn’t aware of any specific problems in any of the offices during the election and that he wanted to bring the issue forward in a year when there are no federal or gubernatorial races.

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth, asked Johnson whether his bill was politically motivated.

“Is your motivation partisan, or is your motivation that you want to be sure they are free from conflict of interest?” she asked.

Johnson said when a joint order prohibiting all three from running for higher office came up in the Senate last during the primary season, he opposed it because he felt it was politically motivated.

“I can’t be any less partisan than taking up the issue now and we can determine where to draw the line,” Johnson said.

Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, suggested the amendment to focus the bill on the secretary of state only.

“It’s about public perception,” he said. “For secretary of state, I think the case has been clearly articulated.”

Chenette said he’s co-sponsoring a bill that will be heard later this session that proposes to make the three offices elective positions, rather than appointive by the majority party in the Legislature.

During last year’s campaign, Summers put his deputy, Julie Flynn, in charge of elections to avoid the conflict of interest issue.

Those who opposed the bill said they didn’t see a problem with the system as it is now.

“I don’t support this bill,” said Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield. “I’m not convinced there’s a problem.”

As of late Wednesday afternoon, four committee members had yet to vote on the measure. It will go forward to the Senate for consideration once all committee members have voted.

Susan Cover — 621-5643
scover@mainetoday.com