Do Kentucky legislators serve our well-being?

Published 3:15 pm Tuesday, April 23, 2024

By Al Cross, guest commentator

In a republic, the form of government that the U.S. Constitution prescribes for states, the will of the people is supposed to be exercised through elected representatives. In Kentucky, we call our government a commonwealth, a term borrowed from our mother state, Virginia, meaning that it should serve the well-being of the people.

The people’s well-being, and their will, were not served on several issues in the recently concluded session of their elected representatives. That’s true of every legislative session, but it’s particularly remarkable for one that had billions of dollars in surplus the General Assembly could have used to give the people some things they want and need.

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The overarching issue is the Republican-controlled legislature’s maintenance of a big surplus to justify more income-tax cuts, to reach its stated goal of abolishing the tax. Advocates point to greater economic and population growth in some of the seven states that have no income tax, but those states have advantages that Kentucky does not: warmer climates in Tennessee, Texas and Florida; the oil industry in Alaska and Wyoming, and broadly legalized gambling in Nevada. Most states have a broad variety of taxes.

Like other states, Kentucky spends the bulk of its state tax revenue on education, and most of that goes to pay teachers, who are getting harder for Kentucky schools to find partly because their salaries aren’t keeping up with inflation or raises in other states. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear wanted to raise teachers’ pay 11 percent, but that was a non-starter in a GOP legislature that sees teachers as his primary political base. So it again left raises up to school districts, but didn’t give most of them enough money to make much of a difference.

Beshear also wanted to fund pre-kindergarten for every child in the state, but that faced not only a political obstacle – a governor who hasn’t worked with the legislature very well – but an ideological one: some conservatives’ notion that it would move too much child-rearing outside the family. But we have a society and an economy in which most parents want or need to work outside the home.

Beshear also asked the General Assembly for a big increase in funding of child care, partly to replace the loss of federal pandemic funds, and a Republican senator, Danny Carroll of Paducah, made a more ambitious proposal. The legislature passed much more modest increases, prompting the hundreds of providers who care for more than 150,000 children to say that they were “at risk of collapse.”

Children figure in many issues, including their use of nicotine vapor products (22% of high-school students) and adult Kentuckians’ addiction to tobacco, fourth in the nation at 17.4%, the biggest driver of the state’s bad health status and health-care expenses. A broad array of groups interested in the Kentucky’s health, including the state Chamber of Commerce, sent senators a letter asking that the state’s annual tobacco-prevention spending be raised to $10 million from $2 million, but Senate President Robert Stivers and Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer told me that none of the advocates for the increase ever spoke to them about it. Thayer questioned the efficacy of prevention programs, but surely our commonwealth can afford to make a stronger effort and see what happens – if for no other reason than fewer smokers mean less Medicaid spending.

The legislature punted on the most difficult issue, abortion. Most Kentuckians oppose our law that bans abortion in nearly all cases, but Republicans bottled up bills that would have made exceptions for rape and incest – because that point of the issue divides them and they don’t want their anti-abortion base fractured in an election year. But the issue seems likely to get a hearing before next winter’s session.

Finally, a good word for the Senate: Thanks, for not taking floor action on the House bill that would have gutted key parts of the Open Records Act and Open Meetings Act by allowing public officials to surreptitiously conduct public business electronically. This was a case where ardent conservatives like Sen. Gex Williams, R-Verona, trumpeted the value of transparency in government and forced a closer look. That’s what the House and Senate need to do, in detail, before the next session – in cooperation with news organizations and other open-government advocates.

To be sure, we will never eliminate the doing of public business in private, but we need strong laws to discourage public officials from doing that. Of course, it doesn’t help that the majorities of the House and Senate set a bad example by deciding most big issues secretly, in their party caucuses. Those have become nearly impenetrable, with the departures of leakers and a shortage of reporters at the legislature. As Justice Louis Brandeis of Louisville said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” Give light, or leak!

Al Cross is the Publisher of Kentucky Health News.