A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly
with State Representative Tina Bojanowski
FRANKFORT – For much of Kentucky’s history, the General Assembly was little more than another state agency run by the governor. He controlled the flow of bills and wrote the state’s budget, and with the House and Senate only meeting for 60 days every other year, there was little chance to change that dynamic.
The pendulum began to swing the other way in the early 1980s, however, thanks to three things: A new governor who had no interest in micro-managing the House and Senate; a change in legislative election cycles, so candidates were no longer on the ballot with – and dependent on – those running for governor; and a group of young leaders who fought for legislative independence.
That background is important to keep in mind as we look back on the last two weeks of this year’s meeting of the General Assembly. A once-weak branch of government is now trying to be the bully on the block in the Capitol, turning that swinging pendulum into a wrecking ball against our constitution’s well-established and highly regarded separation of powers. That type of imbalance was wrong before 1980, and it remains just as wrong more than 40 years later.
The Republican majority is using COVID-19 as the catalyst for a slate of bills it is hoping will become law, but the legislation’s impact will be felt long after the pandemic is behind us.
In the short term, the majority’s goal is to stop Governor Andy Beshear from taking the type of long-term actions he has over the last 10 months to protect citizens from the spread of the coronavirus. His approach, written with the guidance of public-health experts, has kept our infection and death rates down when compared to many of our sister states, and it has received legal backing from the Kentucky Supreme Court and the support of the White House’s coronavirus task force as well as a majority of Kentuckians, according to polling.
As one of my legislative colleagues said during debate, you can’t win a war if you’re taking power away from the battlefield commander.
These bills are now in the hands of the governor, who has 10 days to decide what action to take. Gov. Beshear has promised to reject legislation undermining his work during the pandemic, and to take the matter to court if, as expected, his vetoes are overridden.
Should the bills ultimately become law, they would make a governor’s emergency executive orders and regulations disappear after a month unless the governor calls the General Assembly into special session. Schools, businesses, and other organizations would mostly fall under CDC guidelines, which the leader of that agency recently said are not intended to be a top-down, 50-state requirement. Doing this will almost certainly lead to haphazard enforcement of public-health codes across the commonwealth and add fuel to our steep rise in COVID cases.
Other legislation would also stop Gov. Beshear and those succeeding him from temporarily organizing various boards and commissions that help carry out Executive Branch functions. Here, the legislature already has that very oversight when it meets each winter, but this bill would extend that year-round, even though the courts have been clear that a legislature has no authority when it is not meeting.
Another bill to clear the General Assembly this month initially sought to create a convoluted system designed to keep many cases involving state government from being heard in Franklin County Circuit Court. The Republican majority has been unhappy with some recent rulings, even though an overwhelming number have been maintained on appeal. The sponsor’s original plan was watered down, but the final product still meddles in a system that has worked well for decades.
Against the backdrop of this legislative power grab, the House has moved forward with a very public review of a citizen-filed petition asking for the chamber to impeach Gov. Beshear for his role in guiding Kentucky through the pandemic. Kentucky’s law gives citizens the right to make such a petition, but it is no different than the same right we all have to sue anyone for anything at any time. In other words, there is not a high bar to make such claims.
Impeachment is extremely rare in Kentucky, and the only one to occur in the modern era happened 30 years ago this month, when the state agriculture commissioner was impeached just days after starting to serve a prison sentence for a payroll violation. He later resigned before being tried in the Senate. Because this matter may come before the entire House, I cannot comment further on the impeachment committee’s work. I just hope that this does not become an annual event that consumes the legislature’s limited time to meet.
For now, legislators are back home for a nearly three-week recess, which is constitutionally required in odd-numbered years. We will return to the Capitol early next month.
If you have any thoughts or comments about any issue before us, I am always easy to reach. My email is Tina.Bojanowski@lrc.ky.gov, while the toll-free message line for all legislators – which is staffed each weekday – is 1-800-372-7181. I’m on social media as well. My Twitter handle is @tinaforkentucky and my Facebook page is State Representative Tina Bojanowski.
You can also can read the text of bills and check on votes by visiting the General Assembly’s website at legislature.ky.gov, and KET has most of our meetings available on its website. I hope to hear from you soon.