In Kentucky, bipartisanship gets some things done
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — At the start of the 2015 Kentucky legislative session, state Sen. Paul Hornback made an unusual request to the Republican leadership about a telecommunications bill he had been touting for years.
“Don’t pass Senate Bill 3,” he said, according to Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer.
That’s because Hornback, after years of failing to get the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to take up his bill, had worked out a deal with House leaders. But it meant Hornback had to take his name off it and let the House pass it first, giving Democrats the official credit.
Senate Bill 3′s passage into law last month showcased a moment of bipartisanship in one of the nation’s seven state legislatures with divided government. And state leaders say they might have a thing or two to teach Washington about how to get at least a few things accomplished when Republicans and Democrats share power.
“Using Congress as a barometer, it’s like calling someone the valedictorian of summer school. Maybe that’s not a good standard,” said John Tilley, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Given the fact that we have a split legislature, I think the bipartisanship is as good as it can be. I’m certainly proud of it. There are still times when I’m frustrated by the partisanship and I try to stay above it.”
In a border state that seesaws between the two parties, Democrats enjoy an eight-seat majority in the House; Republicans will have a 16-seat majority in the Senate once new Sen. Steve West is sworn in this month. Republicans hold five of the state’s six congressional seats and both U.S. Senate seats. Democrats control five of the six statewide constitutional offices.
Despite their differences, Democrats and Republicans have come together to pass several important bills in 2015. They agreed to borrow $130 million to build a new cancer research building at the University of Kentucky, a rare act to amend the state’s spending plan that required a 60 percent vote in both chambers. And in a state on the front lines of the treacherous politics of fracking - the oil and gas drilling method that has prompted environmental concerns - both sides agreed to update energy regulations to force companies to notify property owners and publicly disclose the chemicals they are using. And the telecommunications bill stripped the Public Service Commission’s ability to regulate landline service, signaling the beginning of the end for the technology here.
But even with its victories, the legislature is still plagued with partisanship, including the kind of exercises in futility seen in Congress, when lawmakers pass bills they know face certain veto. House Democrats have repeatedly voted to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and to restore the voting rights of some nonviolent convicted felons, only to have both bills die in the Senate. The Senate has routinely passed ill-fated bills banning mandatory union membership as a condition of employment and requiring mandatory ultrasounds before a doctor can perform an abortion.
“The part that’s frustrating isn’t that we have to keep voting on them and the actual process of voting, it’s that they are not given the time of day even for an honest conversation,” Republican state Sen. Whitney Westerfield said.
What feel-good bipartisan spirit there is could come crashing down on one issue: heroin. Kentucky’s heroin overdose deaths have risen to 230 deaths in 2013 from just 22 in 2011. Despite support from leaders of both parties, an effort to curb that startling rise failed last year on the legislature’s final day. And this year’s efforts have been complicated by the race for governor.
Sen. Chris McDaniel, primary sponsor of the Senate’s bill, is Republican James Comer’s running mate. Comer has highlighted McDaniel’s leadership on the issue. Democrats, hesitant to give Comer a victory he can use on the campaign trail, gutted McDaniel’s bill and attached it to another Senate bill that did not have his name on it.
“There are two fights going on. One about what’s in the policy and one about which bill it’s going to be,” said Westerfield, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that has vetted both proposals. “It’s all about politics.”
But Republicans could return the favor. Rep. Sannie Overly, Democratic candidate Jack Conway’s running mate, attached an amendment Wednesday to the proposed compromise heroin legislation that would spend an extra $10 million on substance abuse treatment.
“I find it quite interesting,” Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said.
With just two days left in the legislative session after a nine-day recess, both sides fear the bill could fail again, tainting a 2015 session in which some things actually did get done.