As General Assembly ends, it did not — in most big ways — act in the public interest

Published 6:39 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2019


Guest Columnist

FRANKFORT — With almost all its work done, has the current session of the Kentucky General Assembly acted in the public interest?

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In many small ways, yes. But in most big ways, no. And, of course, it depends on how you define “public interest.”

For example, what some see as needed competition for failing public schools, and more opportunity for students, is seen by others as a drain on schools that need more money, not less – and an attack on a public education system that has been a hallmark of our republic.

The latter view prevails in Kentucky, largely because funding charter schools and giving a tax credit for donations to private or parochial schools don’t sit well with most of the state’s rural population, which would be unlikely to benefit much from either of those failed measures.

And those ideas certainly don’t sit well with teachers, who continued to raise their voices as they did the last session. They also won defeat of a bill that would have greatly reduced the influence of the Kentucky Education Association in choosing board members of their retirement system.

Despite bipartisan assurances that the bills were dead, the cheers and chants of teachers in the Capitol rotunda were heard in the House and Senate chambers on the final day of the session before a recess that will be followed by one more day, March 28, to reconsider any bills Gov. Matt Bevin vetoes – and maybe pass a few more bills that he says he won’t.

Teachers vowed to come back every day because of what happened on the last day of last year’s session: A bill to restructure pensions for future teachers was inserted into a sewer bill and passed in a matter of hours. The state Supreme Court invalidated that procedure and the bill, but legislative legerdemain has many forms, and the teachers aren’t trusting the lawmakers.

Despite their “Remember in November” campaign, teachers had relatively minor impact on last fall’s legislative elections, which raised some hope that the General Assembly would do more to shore up the state’s pension systems, by some measures the nation’s worst-funded. But that was too heavy a lift in a 30-day session that followed on the heels of a failed special session on pensions that Bevin called against the advice of the legislative leaders of his own party.

Despite legislators’ widespread disdain for Bevin, they helped his re-election campaign by passing bills likely to energize the Republican base in a relatively low-turnout election in November: allowing Kentuckians to carry concealed deadly weapons without a permit and anti-abortion bills that are likely to be ruled unconstitutional – unless the U.S. Supreme Court overturns 46-year-old case law.

The slim chance that the court might do that has prompted some Republicans to say Kentucky should produce a case that makes the change. Bevin, one of America’s most unpopular governors, claimed in an overheated op-ed column this week that the effort was “led by our administration” and “The true agenda of pro-abortion advocates across this nation is the mass murder of innocent babies.”

Politics aside, there were a few positive signs. A bipartisan school-safety bill “indicates we can take big issues and look at them through a logical, thoughtful lens,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, a Republican from Greensburg.

And it appears that an amendment will result in final passage March 28 of a bill to ban the use of tobacco and electronic cigarettes in all public schools, which “certainly helps with public health,” said Democratic Senate Leader Morgan McGarvey of Louisville.

But McGarvey also said, “I think we missed an opportunity to get through some fairly non-controversial bills that would have produced much-needed revenue,” such as bills authorizing gambling on sports and legalizing marijuana.

McGarvey told the Senate, referring to a bill that gave banks a fairer but lower tax structure, “We have given money away. We have neglected to take the opportunity to bring money in.”

The bills that didn’t pass also included some bad ones, such as two that would have greatly weakened the state open-records law, which went nowhere after widespread objections.

But on the last day before recess, legislative leaders sneaked through a bill that would exempt from the law any Revenue Department rulings that aren’t appealed and requests to the department for tax guidance and changes in interstate-income apportionment. The department said it wanted to protect employees from liability for mistakes, but the law has exemptions that protect individuals’ and businesses’ privacy, and agencies have a responsibility to be careful.

It was almost as if the lawmakers had to somehow satisfy the inherent desire among too many government officials for secrecy. No wonder teachers don’t trust them. Good faith must be earned.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.