Three days before the 2014 Minnesota legislative session would adjourn, House member John Lesch was about to miss a number of key votes.
“Because of his service in the Minnesota National Guard, Rep. John Lesch has been called to inactive duty training for the remainder of the week at Camp Ripley,” said a memo from House staff last week. “These orders are effective immediately.”
By then, 1st Lt. Lesch had already reported to the training site outside Little Falls while his fellow legislators prepared to debate the session’s most closely watched issues, including a $1.2 billion bonding bill and medical marijuana.
But by the end of the day Lesch was on his way back to St. Paul, after his commander agreed to let him return for the remainder of the session.
It wasn’t the first time the call of duty conflicted with Lesch’s job as a lawmaker, and he isn’t the only person serving double duty. Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, is a Lt. Col. in the National Guard, while Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
Although state legislatures typically boast scores of military veterans, some lawmakers serve both roles at the same time. As many as 63 Reservists served in statehouses bodies across the country in 2010, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported.
The Department of Defense generally does not allow full-time military members on active duty to hold offices in state government, but reserve members on active duty 270 days or less may do so “provided there is no interference with the performance of military duties,” according to a 2008 directive.
In response, several states have developed their own constitutional or statutory provisions regarding temporary replacements for legislators called to military service. According to the conference of state legislatures, Arkansas in 2009 specified that an elected official retains the public office upon returning from active military duty. In 2008, Louisiana allowed the appointment of a temporary successor if a lawmaker is called up for more than six months.
Some legislators in Minnesota would like this state to join those with provisions for lawmakers called to active duty. During the 2009-10 session, a pair of bills were authored proposing a constitutional amendment similar to a measure in Louisiana. There, instead of a special election in the wake of a vacancy, lawmakers called to active duty would submit the names of potential successors from their district who would be qualified to serve in their place. Although a bill in the Minnesota House proposing an amendment passed 128-4 in 2010, its Senate companion stalled. Two other, similar bills went nowhere.
Reinert, who wrote the legislation in the House and later in the Senate, said he’d like to see it come to fruition.
Reinert said Lesch’s recent near-absence calls attention to new and ongoing military commitments by Reservists. Although he hasn’t been deployed overseas, training caused Lesch to miss the beginning days of the 2010 legislative session and he was excused from a 2011 special session for infantry training.
“Whether it’s Representative Lesch now or me in a year, we’re going to have this situation again,” Reinert said. “It still seems like an idea that we should have some discussion about. Our nation’s military commitments are not going away.”