Wednesday, January 11
Sometimes change comes fast.
This week I was sworn in for a new four-year term while my kids, Clara and Wilson, stood on the floor with me. Four years ago they were too young to attend. This time they raised their hands while I took the oath, and, during the roll call, when the Clerk of the Senate got to “McGarvey,” two five-year-old soprano voices answered, “Here!” Children grow up all too quickly, but that was one of the few “cute” moments of the legislative week.
Some change comes dangerously fast, like the results you would get if you had been regularly shaking a celebratory bottle of champagne since the prohibition era, without being able to take a drink. When you're finally allowed to pop the cork, the stuff inside probably sprays in all directions, and you might gulp down what's left a little too quickly.
The GOP took control of the House for the first time in 95 years, and the bottled-up policy priorities of the new majority spewed into committee hearings and floor votes.
I won’t pretend that any of this was unexpected. Elections have consequences. But I'm reminded of what the stunned chaos theorist Ian Malcolm said when he saw what geneticists had produced at Jurassic Park: “Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
The now-empowered Frankfort Republicans, at times, seemed so intoxicated with what they could do that they didn’t stop to think about whether they should do it.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the actions of those who rushed a University of Louisville bill to judgment. It empowers Governor Bevin to replace the institution's board of trustees and install one of his own choosing. It does this without any assurance that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (“SACS”) will be satisfied and remove U of L's accreditation from the probation it has imposed.
Playing fast – way too fast – and loose with the university's future, with presidential and faculty recruitment, with the integrity of students' degrees, with the Cardinal athletic teams' opportunity to compete, is irresponsible. It may bail the Governor out of the predicament he created for himself by what a circuit court has ruled was an unlawful takeover of university governance. However, for senators who were forced into a last-minute vote, with no time to read, much less analyze the legislation, the bill was a pig in the proverbial poke.
The new majority quietly and abruptly attached the U of L measure to a dog bite proposal, renamed it and insisted on immediate passage. There were no hearings. No expert testimony. No deliberation. No time for thorough consideration or serious debate. When questioned during committee, the sponsor of the bill admitted he could not say with certainty whether this would fix the problem or exacerbate it.
This is not a partisan issue; everyone wants the University of Louisville to succeed. The bill does not contain any overtly political changes. Its specifics include reducing the number of appointed board members from 17 to 10 and requiring Senate confirmation of new trustees. I’m not necessarily opposed to these provisions. Maybe a smaller board could more nimbly handle difficult situations, and Senate confirmation could prevent the kind of missteps taken by our previous governor that left some boards out of racial and/or political balance.
The problem is that the University of Louisville's accreditation was put on probation because the current governor was deemed to have used undue political influence in removing current board members without cause. The legislation adopted this week still removes board members without cause and could put the accreditation at greater risk.
As expected, the GOP also fulfilled its campaign promises aimed at labor unions and women's abortion rights. Repeat after me: “Elections have consequences.”
The abortion bills – including a constitutionally questionable ban after the 20th week of pregnancy and a coercive requirement that a pregnant woman must be shown or described an image of their fetus and listen to the heartbeat, even if she objects – were rushed to passage.
The truth of the matter is, I don’t like abortion. I’m not sure anyone in the General Assembly does. These measures, however, go too far. Despite claims to the contrary, there is no exception in this legislation to protect women who are the victims of rape or incest. When confronted with this omission, the new majority refused to let the bill be amended.
The GOP also has finally done the bidding of the Chamber of Commerce, passing both the so-called “Right to Work” bill and legislation that eliminates the requirement to pay a prevailing wage in public construction projects. “Right To Work” is largely symbolic, but make no mistake, its intent is to undo privately bargained-for contracts between labor and management. This will reduce workers' ability to approach employers from a position of strength.
Prevailing wage laws are intended to protect workers’ wages by prohibiting companies from slashing wage rates in order to qualify as the lowest bidder on government contracts. The current formula might need some tinkering, but the overall intent is a laudable concept. Asked to eliminate prevailing wage, I voted no. Like my colleagues who voted yes, I want to see more investment in infrastructure, and I want to see taxpayers get the best deal. But the “best” bid is not always the lowest. It's wrong to balance the state budget on the backs of the men and women who work hard to build the things we use every day.
Maybe some positive growth will result from adopting “Right To Work” and voiding the prevailing wage law, but I worry that we will end up eroding salaries, benefits and workplace safety for many Kentuckians. Low wage bidders from outside Kentucky will rejoice.
The Capitol Rotunda was full to overflowing with protesters on the day the Republicans finally had their way on these issues. The dissent was so full-throated that Senate President Robert Stivers had to warn doorkeepers to keep the chamber closed against the vocal assault.
But Gov. Bevin was waiting eagerly on the first floor to sign these bills into law, as he gleefully pledged to be when he spoke to some 1,500 business executives from across Kentucky at a largely Republican Kentucky Chamber of Commerce dinner earlier in the week. The menu was steak, crab cakes and self-satisfaction.
The Governor, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate brought the Republican message. I spoke for the Democrats. One of my Republican friends later posted on Facebook that I had “walked into the shark tank with chum in [my] pockets . . . .” It wasn’t that nasty, but I did begin my speech by saying I felt like a new guy at an AA meeting: “Hi. My name is Morgan. I'm a Democrat.”
Things had got so bad for us Democrats, I told them, that Mariah Carey called our caucus to say, “You guys are really having a rough week.”
Of course it's the working people of Kentucky who had a bad week in Frankfort, as well as the women whose right to unimpeded healthcare was being compromised. But once these items from the national right wing think tank agenda are checked off the Kentucky GOP list and signed into law, we still face the big policy dilemmas – tax reform, healthcare, education, job creation and pensions. They will be more difficult to railroad through the General Assembly.
Politics is easy. Policy is gnarled and nuanced.
As I reminded the business dinner crowd, Senator McConnell recently repeated his conviction that tackling the really big things requires buy-in from both sides. On that, we agree. And I've seen that truth manifest itself repeatedly during my first four years in Frankfort. It's a truth that has informed my service in the Senate. Successful policy requires partnership, not partisanship - open minds, not closed fists.
Along that line, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that will allow the public to see the calculated pension benefits of their legislators. I believe in transparency, and I have voted in favor of this every time it has been proposed.
The Senate also held its 5th Annual Bipartisan Lunch. Lawmakers from both parties ate together from a traditional southern menu: fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes and sweet tea...only sweet tea. I hope this is symbolic of comfort and not a sign that we're finally going to drag Kentucky into the Southern Strategy, with which the Republican Party has subsumed states like North Carolina.
We have a month-long adjournment in which to digest what happened during the first week of the 2017 session and figure out where to go from here.
Elections have consequences, but they don't have to be high-handed or cold-hearted. We can choose to do better than that.