Rae Hodge: State Senate’s ‘bill mill’ is a dilemma that leaves the public out of the process

For Northern Kentucky Tribune
Published: Jan 12th, 2015

By RAE HODGE

Kentucky’s top legislative brass weigh in on the fast pace of state lawmaking, and what happens to civic engagement when the public is left out of the loop.

Right To Work legislation, an abortion-restriction measure, a bill aimed at stopping the heroin epidemic, and a constitutional amendment to take power from the governor.

What do all these pieces of legislation all have in common?

They’re all highly controversial bills passed in just under three days through the Kentucky Senate last week. Lawmakers passed the bills so fast that the public lacked any real chance to testify on them. Instead, the public was barely notified that the hearings were happening at all.

Kentucky is already struggling with a lack of civic engagement at the state government level.

Concern for Kentucky’s civic health recently emerged from a civic health index report initiated by Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes established a foundation for civic health in 2012 after the state received its first civic health index report in 2011 noting “the alarming decline of civic engagement among all Kentucky citizens.”

While the state’s voter registration of 66.9 percent is far above the national 46.8 average, Kentuckians’ involvement in their government appears to stop at the ballot box. The Secretary of State’s 2013 Civic Health Assessment says only 10 percent of state residents contacted an elected official in 2010. Kentucky ranks 43rd among the states in the number of volunteers.

The number of Kentuckians taking to the halls of power by showing up in committee hearings is also unknown, but a cursory observation of everyday lawmaking in Frankfort reveals the obvious: If the public isn’t told in advance that they can participate in the process, and if they don’t know when the process will happen, they aren’t going to be there.

Ky Forward asked the leaders of both the state Senate and House of Representatives to weigh in on what the legislature can do to encourage involvement in state government and open up the process for everyday people.

Senate President Robert Stivers argues for passage of Right to Work bill.  (Photo by Rae Hodge)

Senate President Robert Stivers argues for passage of Right to Work bill. (Photo by Rae Hodge)

In a state troubled by a lack of civic education and engagement, what is the impact of high-speed lawmaking on Kentucky’s civic health?

Senate Slingshot

State Sen. President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, doesn’t think that speeding up the process prevents Kentuckians from getting a fair shot at civic engagement.

“This has been a history of the legislature,” said Stivers. “We have been having a retreat-style caucus retreat as long as we’ve been in the majority, and I think the Democrat party has similarly been situated in the Senate. so we come in, and with these organizational sessions, we are not delayed in acting. So this is not unusual or out of the ordinary. This has been going on for years.”

With work and family schedules to balance against civic duty, what are the consequences for the average voter when hearings happen this fast?

“They would get more bang for their buck,” said Stivers. “And get what they’re paying for.”

Stivers said that “yes, without a doubt” the average person would get a chance to speak out against bills they disagree with.

But when it was pointed out that the Senate Rules do not require them to notify the public which bills are getting hearings during committee meetings, Stivers insisted: “We post. We’re here. We’re available. We posted the day before on both of these.”

That’s not entirely accurate, though.

While Friday’s committee meeting times were made public on Thursday evening, it wasn’t until halfway through Friday that the schedule was updated to reflect which bills would be heard.

In the case of the abortion bill, the Senate committee that had the bill — the Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs, and Public Protection — also made a change announced less than two hours before meeting. The committee chair, Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, told lawmakers that the meeting had been moved to a different building.

A piece of paper was then hung on the door of the original meeting place with the new location. But by then, it was moot: the meeting lasted only 20 minutes. The abortion bill passed with only one reporter present, and a paid ACLU representative was the only person to speak against the measure.

Additionally, Senate State and Local Government Committee has posted their schedule online several times in the recent past without saying which bills would be heard, leaving even the most politically-engaged folks guessing right up to the last minute.

House Rules

While the state Senate has no requirement for posting bills, the House rules demand a 3 day posting period for all bills in committee. This is no guarantee, however. Committee chairs have the power to waive the posting of bills. Another exception exists for those bills that make it out of a committee alive but are sent back. The public doesn’t have to be told that the bill is back on the chopping block.

In fact, even if a committee chair has posted the bill, they still don’t have to discuss it in committee. No matter how many members of the public show up to testify for or against the bill, the chair can simply decide not to hear the bill.

In the past House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has acknowledged Kentucky’s decline in civic engagement. In an editorial originally published in the Floyd County Times, he urged voters to make time for their civic duties.

Citing his participation in the “America’s Legislators Back to School Program,” Stumbo said “the need for improving civic education is definitely there.”

Since bills are shooting out of the Senate at such a quick clip, the onus is laid entirely on the House to give the public their chance to speak out against the four recently passed Senate bills.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo says he’s used to this routine.

“We’ve had the Senate do this before. If you remember, this is kind of an old game that they play. They don’t do anything different,” he said.

After asking voters to make time for civic duties, will the House provide them enough notice to attend committee meetings?

“Yes. We’re going to have full hearings on the bills — the ones that merit hearings — once there’s enough support to have hearings on them. Some of them don’t have enough support (among elected Reps.in the House) to have any type of hearing on them,” he said.

But only moments after saying this, Stumbo told reporters about the House’s plans to move its own bills at equal speed.

“Probably by the second or third day we’ll have bills on the board,” he said, meaning the voting scoreboard used in the House chamber when a full vote has been taken. “Maybe the first day. I’ll have to ask leader (Rocky) Adkins.”

He laid out the high-impact bills the House wants to pass when legislators come back to Frankfort on Feb 3 for the second part of session.

“We’re going to start moving on minimum wage, which is part of the House agenda. Domestic violence should be ready to go by that time. And hopefully we’ll have some hearings on the pension reform bill,” he said.

Opening Up the Process

If these committee meetings are the most effective place for Kentuckians to engage in the process but so little notice is given to Kentuckians when they’ll occur, what can be done to open it up to more people?

Stivers thinks that having the start date of the Kentucky legislative session is enough.

“It is known and has been known that on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of the odd years that there would be a session — what is known as a short session. It is advertised. It is in the papers. It is discussed on Kentucky Education Television. It’s out there,” he said. “We can’t send a letter to everyone in the state.”

While projects like the Civic Health Index and the Millennial Impact Report might help Kentucky find new ways of building civic engagement, the halls of the Capitol building still seem out of reach to much of the public.

And with seemingly little concern from legislative leaders about the effects of this expeditious parliamentary maneuvering, there are few signs that anyone in the Capitol is reaching out to the public.

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