Friday, February 10

I am pictured above with Mercy Academy students during their visit to Frankfort. 

I am pictured above with Mercy Academy students during their visit to Frankfort. 

We're back in Frankfort after the tumultuous first week. On the one hand, nothing has changed. On the other hand, everything has changed.

We're facing the same challenges. We're being lobbied by the same advocates and interests. We share the same goals, which are to represent our constituents and promote a better Kentucky. We walk the same halls, and the beauty of the Capitol, with its sweeping expanses of marble and sculpted icons of Kentucky history, remains a treat for the eye and a lift for the spirit. 

On the other hand, Democrats like me must work even harder to have an impact in now-Republican-controlled Frankfort, and we're doing that.

Governor Matt Bevin offered his version of the “state of the commonwealth” this week, and, as is always the case, the Governor thinks he has been doing some great things for Kentucky.

As is often the case, members of the loyal opposition see it a bit differently.

The Governor's appearance was more partisan pep rally than state-of-the Commonwealth. Many bumper-sticker slogans were thrown about, but the address was largely void of the specific legislative policy prompts normally found in previous addresses to this joint session of the General Assembly. 

The Governor did say one striking thing: He'll work with the legislature to revamp the state's tax code, and the results will not be revenue neutral. Translation: He's looking to raise taxes, using the cover of public pension funding shortfalls to justify what Frankfort Republicans long have considered unthinkable.

He used an unrealistic but scary-sounding number to describe the worst-case pension deficit (the best case projections has us facing a $30-$35 billion unfunded liability, so there’s no need to make worse assumptions), but what the heck? Whatever works. Many of us have said repeatedly that the biggest problem facing Kentucky is a seriously underfunded state government that cannot meet our current needs and obligations, much less invest effectively in the infrastructure and programs that are needed to secure our children's future.

Governor Bevin may not understand or appreciate government as well as his Republican predecessor, Louie Nunn, but he is just as smart and just as tough. If he does this, and does it right, it will be a feather in his cap.

The devil will be in the detail, but at least Gov. Bevin is willing to drag his GOP colleagues into considering what Sen. Mitch McConnell long ago warned the state Senate's then-new Republican majority to avoid at all costs – raising taxes.

What I hope we do is broaden the tax base, lower rates, increase fairness and help business. The Governor complains, properly, that in Kentucky we excuse more tax burden than we impose. There are too many loopholes in the state code. But we shouldn't plug them up and then resort to a purely consumption-based tax model that overburdens the middle class, working families, and working poor who spend most of their income on the basics of daily living.

Besides listening to the governor, we did some legislating this week.

On occasion you have to do what you think is right, even if those around you see things differently. This week the Senate passed SB 17, which is supposed to protect students' right to religious speech, by a vote of 31-3. I voted no. Advocates of SB 17 say it merely codifies protections already enjoyed by students. Opponents of the bill believe it will allow officially recognized and sanctioned student organizations to discriminate against individuals in choosing their membership. 

I believe students should not be punished for expressing religious views in relevant assignments, and student speakers should not be censored before they speak. However, I'm greatly concerned about the prospect of, for example, a school-sponsored club blacklisting gay students. Most importantly, I want to make sure we maintain a bright line between the separation of church and state. The provisions of SB 17 could allow institutions to blur these lines. That is reason enough for a “no” vote.  

I also voted “no” on Senate Bill 18, which will allow the findings of peer-to-peer medical review panels to remain secret. I applaud the intent of this bill – to allow doctors to police each other without the fear that reports will later be used against them in a court of law. However, the bill was not so deftly drafted, and would have never, under any circumstance, allowed these records to see the light of day. We have a system of evidentiary rules better-suited to handle this than the uncompromising proposal of this statute. 

Senate Bill 50, allowing for school districts to opt-into a more flexible calendar that includes all the required hours of instruction, was a no-brainer. Another no-brainer was Senate Bill 2, which would increase the transparency, accountability and expertise of state pension systems. It passed 37-0.

No House Bills made their way to the Senate this week, but several were introduced that caused plenty of controversy. I heard from numerous people on HB 202, which would give Frankfort even more control over the city of Louisville. I oppose this legislation and find it shortsighted. The Party in Power today will not always be in charge, in Frankfort or in Louisville. We should create policy built to stand the test of time, not politics intended to win the next election. Hopefully HB 202 will not make it across the hall. 

This was also a week for citizen advocacy in Frankfort, and just because the Republicans now control state government that doesn't slow down the traffic in a Democratic state senator's office. To wit, I had a constant parade of visitors all four working days.

My favorite group, as has been true in the past, was the platoon of Mercy Academy students who took up almost all of the seats in our largest conference room. I enjoy everyone who comes to Frankfort on a civic mission, but the young women from Mercy are something of a special case. They're smart, well-prepared and willing to discuss the most difficult issues.

They arrived armed with a packet of information about the death penalty, including poll results on the number of Kentuckians who now oppose capital punishment. The Mercy student who handed me the material on this issue, Mara Roth, didn't just slap down the envelope. She was prepared, as our Mercy visitors always have been. I questioned her fairly closely. She was impressive and really knew her stuff.

We covered a lot of ground with the Mercy ladies, but they handled conversations about such difficult issues as abortion, the death penalty, medical marijuana and charter schools with great poise.

And this meeting was just the tip of the iceberg. We easily spoke with 300-400 visitors, from groups as diverse as a young man from the Safe Place, who has attended three different high schools in the last two months, to the Kentucky President of AT&T. 

I cite this for a reason. There is truly a renewed level of engagement in our civic affairs. Anybody who bought into “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam's book on the supposed collapse of American civic involvement, should spend a week in my office. I can show them the placard left behind by 30 moms, each of whom signed it, demanding “Action for Gun Sense.” Better yet, try to find a parking space. 

My email inbox and phone messages also reflect a juiced-up citizenry. We received over 1200 calls and too many emails to count during the first week of the session alone. I’m still trying to catch up. There were calls of support, messages beseeching me to vote a certain way, and personal stories of how the enactment of legislation would cause benefit or harm. To end on a light note, one of my favorites was the individual who emailed me and simply said “Take a hike!” Somehow I don’t think he was looking out for my mental or physical health. See, some things really don’t change in Frankfort.

Robert Pieroni