Session ‘Set Aside Politics for Policy’

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THE COURIER-JOURNAL | AL CROSS | MARCH 27, 2015

When they separated senators’ desks by party at the start of the 2015 General Assembly, it was a bad omen.

After all, that’s like they do it in Washington, in a government that none other in the country really wants to emulate, because of the partisan gridlock that comes from being obsessed with winning the next election.

And winning would seem to be a natural obsession in Frankfort this year, because there’s a highly competitive election for governor and other statewide offices, and some key players in those contests were also key players in the legislative session.

But somehow, at the end, in one of the few state legislatures where Democrats control one chamber and Republicans control the other, politics took a back seat.

The results included high-profile bills to fight the state’s heroin-overdose epidemic, stave off huge losses in the state road fund, and at last give civil-court protection to victims of dating violence.

Those were the biggies, but the legislative logjam that gave way on the long, final night of the session also included many other bills, including one to stimulate donations for rape crisis centers, children’s cancer research and the Special Olympics — a measure that opponents of abortion had fear-mongered into a stall.

That wasn’t the only vote that stood up to bullies. In setting a new floor for the state gasoline tax, rather than letting it fall because of declines in the wholesale price of gas, it said no to Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing group that ran radio commercials aimed at legislators.

To be sure, some important business was left undone, but that’s true of any session, especially those in odd-numbered years, which are half as long as those in the even years. “For a short session, it was a pretty darn good session,” said House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Frankfort fixture for 35 years.

Senate President Robert Stivers, who also deserves much of the credit, said the legislature proved “We can set aside politics for policy.”

At the start, the prospects for that didn’t look good.

Not only did the Republicans who control the Senate assign seats by party, they used the first few days of the session to jam through several bills that were mainly about politics because they had no chance in the Democratic House.

The bill in the bunch that did stand a chance, to get tough on heroin traffickers, had political Velcro because it was drafted by Sen. Chris McDaniel of Taylor Mill, who is running for lieutenant governor on a Republican primary slate headed by Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.

The House heroin bill was drafted by Democratic Rep. John Tilley, who was also the prime sponsor of the dating-violence bill. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, his counterpart in the Senate was Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, who is running for attorney general against Andy Beshear, the son of Gov. Steve Beshear.

That sounded like trouble, especially when the House and Senate generally disagreed on some hot-button issues.

The prevailing view in the House was that the Senate’s tough sentences for heroin wouldn’t be a real deterrent and could resume the legislature’s old habit of being too eager to lock people up for too long — an expensive trend that Tilley and others helped reverse with a comprehensive reform package a few years ago.

Meanwhile, most senators found it hard to accept the House’s plan to start needle-exchange programs for addicts — which have been found to be effective at steering them to treatment and preventing disease, but still seemed to many like too much of an enabling mechanism for drug abuse.

In the end, both chambers got most of what they wanted, in large measure because Tilley and Westerfield had some things in common — a hometown, Hopkinsville, and a two-man carpool to and from Frankfort, Adam Beam of The Associated Press reported.

Tilley said at the bill signing, “I don’t think I’d be here today if we weren’t able to have some of those long conversations on that 3½-hour drive to and from our hometown.”

Because Westerfield and Tilley had things in common, and a personal relationship, they were able to overcome the politics of the situation. In Washington, the effectiveness of Congress has suffered partly because personal relationships have declined in the highly partisan, polarized atmosphere and the demands of fund-raising.

Another difference is the chief executive. President Obama seems to have little influence over what happens in Congress, other than veto threats, but in Frankfort the governor shares trust with legislative leaders and was actively engaged in the session, contributing to its success.

That being said, it was disappointing that Beshear and legislators left to the next governor the need to shore up the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System, which is in trouble because they haven’t properly funded it.

With the next session coming in an election year, and in a new governor’s first year, lawmakers may have missed their best chance to offer voters a constitutional amendment to allow time-limited local sales taxes for specified purposes, and a statewide smoking ban, which would be the single biggest thing they could to attack the state’s biggest problem, poor health.

Still, some Republicans in the Senate, where the smoking ban died, said its time will come.

“It is about education and moving people. It is also a generational thing,” Republican Caucus Chairman Dan Seum of Louisville told Melissa Patrick of Kentucky Health News, which I publish as part of my work at the University of Kentucky.

We reported that Senate President Pro Tem David Givens “said that he did see a future for a smoke-free Kentucky, complementing the proponents and how they have conducted themselves in the discussion.”

Givens said, “There is a large educational component to it and by the proponents continuing the conversation, continuing to promote the effort, they are educating the populace and educating people that elect us. When they start to move the electorate, they certainly start to move us.”

That can’t come too soon.

Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.

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