Kentucky lawmakers say negative impacts of session will be felt across the state

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By Brad Bowman
The State Journal
It may not come as a surprise that none of the legislation introduced by Frankfort and Franklin County Democratic lawmakers received a hearing in the 30-day legislative session, but they say the true surprise will be the eventual impact of what a new Republican supermajority passed.
Rep. James Kay, D-Versailles, who represents part of Franklin County, sponsored several bills aimed at state pension reforms.
One bill would have diluted a sitting governor’s ability to influence the Kentucky Retirement Systems (KRS) board of trustees. The bill aimed to prevent a governor from unseating a board member unless he was convicted of a felony or found to have committed ethical violations. The bill also would have decreased the number of gubernatorial appointees and eliminated the secretary of the Personnel Cabinet as a member. After being assigned to committee, the bill never received a hearing.
A bill to remove lawmakers from the legislative pension system and place them in the state employee pension system also did not receive a hearing. Neither did bills by Kay to put term limits on lawmakers and to add homestead exemption for disabled veterans who are rated unemployable.
“The most important issue of mine that was lost was I filed a floor amendment to Senate Bill 2 to require hedge funds to disclose their fees (in KRS), and the Republican majority voted that down,” Kay said. “I recognized the travesty of holding the hedge funds accountable. I think essentially KRS, the leadership over there, got away with it.”
Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, sponsored the most transparent bill to date regarding the state pension system, and it passed in the early days of the session. Hedge funds have been a contentious topic in regards to the pension system’s investments.
In a legislative staff presentation last year, it was shown that KRS had invested more than 10 percent of its assets into hedge funds with no clear way to report the costs and fees associated with managing those funds.
Going from a member of the majority party in the House to the minority, Kay said he could see clearly the House Republican majority wanted to control how the session played out.
“They wanted the narrative to be that it’s a new day in Frankfort, but they were willing to go and use all the old backroom deals and underhanded tactics that the old majority (Democrats) used to get what they wanted done,” Kay said. “I had the same frustrations fighting in the House as a member of the majority as I did as a member of the minority.
“They (Republicans) will say it was a historic session, but ultimately the two things that will make history: They limited debate more than any session in history (with the new procedural rules made by the Republican majority) and there will be more constitutional challenges in court on legislation of any session long or short in history.”
One of those challenges will be of charter schools, Kay said, because of bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Rudy, R-Paducah, and passed that amends the 2016-2018 executive branch budget, creating a funding mechanism for charter schools.
Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, a retired educator who has served on the House Education Committee all but two years of his 15 years in office, was removed this year from the committee when Republicans took control of the House. He agreed with Kay that the impact of charter schools will be devastating.
Under the bill’s provisions, a local school board can deny or accept a charter school’s application, but the charter applicant can appeal to the Kentucky Board of Education if it is denied, thus diluting a board and a local superintendent’s power, Graham said.
“Where the child goes, the money will go, which will certainly impact the district’s budget,” Graham said. “I said on the day of the debate on charter schools, they (Republicans) own it all. These policies are their policies. They can’t say it was done in a bipartisan way. The two major educational reforms we’ve had … those were done in a bipartisan fashion. We were inclusive of the Republicans. These charter schools are going to cherry-pick who they want in those schools.
“People will feel the impact when these schools open. The district will have to be prepared when these corporations come in. The small-town community, the center core of what keeps those communities together, is their school district. They are the major employer. They are engaged in their athletic teams. The money may not be there and they may have to lay people off. They will see the impact right away.”
As a member of the new minority, Graham said, he learned a lot this session. He didn’t sponsor any legislation, saying he knew it would have a better chance of getting a hearing with someone in the majority party.
“The one thing I have come to realize is that all of us represent the same amount of people; as a result we should all be engaged. For me, it was really a transition — not to have any say into policies that were crafted,” Graham said. “The one thing you do understand is that you still have to stand up and fight for those things you believe in, that your district believes in, and you have to articulate those regardless. It made me more determined and more focused on making sure not rolling over and letting things happen but being a voice for those you represent regardless of the outcome.”
Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, said his constituents are already feeling the impact of the prevailing-wage law, which lifted the requirement of setting an average wage for workers on any public project. The bill had an emergency clause enacting it once it was signed by Gov. Bevin on Jan. 9.
“The session was really designed to show the strength of our new majority,” Carroll said. “It’s a session that will take several months to a year for people to see the impact. Prevailing wage applies to both union and nonunion workers, who are already affected by it with lower wages. They didn’t realize the impact of the prevailing wage law appeal. In terms of long-range impact, it will take some time for anyone working on a public project to realize that their pay is going to get cut.”
Carroll sponsored several bills that didn’t receive a hearing. A bill to allow early voting for those suffering from medical conditions that prevent them from voting was attached to another bill late in the session and passed.
As a minority in the Senate, Carroll said he will continue to find opportunities to cooperate with Republicans as he has for years.
“With the loss of control of the House by the Democratic Party there was no resistance to anything the party wanted to do . There was more disagreement between the two houses than I anticipated,” Carroll said. “Individuals in the House amended Senate bills and the Senate backed up and in some instances refused to concur on amendments members made. I adopted the attitude from the beginning to cooperate with the majority party as I could. I don’t go out of my way to ruffle feathers. Actually, I do my best to cooperate and help where I can. When I oppose, I oppose with an attitude that is not considered personal with members of the majority party.”