Friday, March 10
This was a weary week.
After holding multiple community meetings in the last month, in different parts of my senate district, I faced a fight in Frankfort to minimize damage from a battery of bad bills aimed at Louisville by the Majority Party. I also pushed bills of my own, one of which would protect health savings accounts from garnishment – an important effort, given the ever-widening use of this approach to health coverage. It passed unanimously through a House committee on Wednesday.
I keep thinking about the Kris Kristofferson lyric that Janis Joplin made famous: I was “feelin' nearly faded as my jeans.” On the other hand, it's a privilege to be here and do this work.
The terrific staff in our office suite tried to pep us up with some home cooking. Doris brought in a crock pot full of potatoes, green beans, onions and sausages that her husband used to concoct for the guys at his firehouse. Patty arrived later in the week with shrimp and grits that would send Emeril Lagasse into a jealous weep.
Like a diesel rig headed downhill into L.A., the legislature speeds up as it nears the end of the road, and we're only a few work days away from reaching the close of the 2017 General Assembly. Sometimes I like to bang out a few chords on my old Martin guitar to de-stress. The guitar sits in the corner of my office and, even though I could have used the relief, I didn't have much time to play it.
The week started off on a discordant note as the Senate received HB 151, the so-called “neighborhood school” bill. This title is misleading. Nearly 90% of JCPS parents already enroll their children in the school of their choice, and 50% of all students choose not to attend the school closest to their home.
HB 151 will actually deny many parents their first choice school, create chaos in a district that has more than an 80 percent market share, destabilize Louisville neighborhoods, and risk turning the city into “doughnut,” making us look like St. Louis and other communities where families have fled to “safe” suburbs. This will further isolate our disadvantaged students and abandon Louisville's historic, decades-long commitment to diversity and inclusion.
JCPS is not perfect. The assignment plan and basic customer service model both need updating. We must continue demanding that JCPS improve its under-performing schools. But this bill will not move us in that direction.
Instead, HB 151 is an unprecedented and unjustified intrusion by state government into the operation of Jefferson County Public Schools. It flies in the face of the most basic conservative preference for government at the lowest level - government closest to the issue. It substitutes the judgment of politicians from all over Kentucky for the informed decisions of the school board members elected by the citizens of Jefferson County.
The most famous line in Kristofferson's song is, “Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.” It doesn't apply here. We have plenty to lose if House Bill 151 passes.
There's honest emotion in this and other legislative challenges.
The most intense debate this week came as we voted to expand Kentucky's hate crimes law, applying it to law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency medical crews and making them part of a protected class. Currently hate statutes apply to victims of offenses motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation or national origin. The fact that a hate crime is involved can be considered by judges in denying probation at sentencing or by parole boards in denying parole.
Let me make this clear: I could not support our first responders any more strongly than I do. They put their lives on the line for us every single time they step out of their vehicles to do their jobs. I appreciate their selflessness, as well as the stress their chosen profession puts on their families.
I know what it means to fear the phone call that says someone in uniform has been hurt, or worse. My brother is on his fifth deployment in the Middle East. We wait for the text from his wife each time the news breaks that a member of our armed services has been killed in action.
Blue lives matter, deeply, but once you start adding occupations to the hate crimes list, where do you stop? What happens if a soldier at Fort Knox or Fort Campbell is killed because they wear a uniform? Should that be a hate crime? What about our teachers? Social workers? Nurses?
Our job is to create policy that lasts for 140 years, not politics that can be crammed into 140 characters. Hate crime status should be reserved for who you are, not what you do. No matter how noble the profession.
That’s why I voted “no” on HB 14. It expands hate crimes as a political stunt meant to divide us without providing any real benefit. The sponsor of the bill testified in committee that it would not serve as a deterrent, added no real benefit to the already increased penalties that are applied when you attack a police officer, and would apply to off-duty officers and people you merely “perceive” to be on-or-off-duty cops.
If we really want to support the brave men and women who serve us, let’s fund their pensions. Let’s provide them with the training, staffing, and resources they need to safely do their jobs. I made this argument to my colleagues, but the measure passed overwhelmingly. However, on my way off the floor, a State Trooper stopped me to say, “I appreciate what you said in there. That was nothing but a feel-good bill.” I hope that’s the guy who pulls me over for speeding on I-64.
Another touching debate was triggered by House Bill 67, called “Jack's Law” in remembrance of the child whose death prompted it. This measure will make it easier for Kentucky families to prevent the broad circulation of autopsy photographs, videos and other images of their loved ones. I supported the proposal, which will allow access by law enforcement and other officials who need to use such materials in their work but will tighten rules for denying access to media outlet and bloggers.
Weary as one might be, this is the time for lawmakers and citizens to keep their eyes open. This is the part of a session in which deals are made, both good and bad. Last-minute changes sometimes turn good bills into bad, and vice versa. Like when a provision was inserted at the last minute to strip the Office of the Attorney General of its civil authority. That bill was presented in committee but did not receive a vote . . . yet. Lots will happen in the coming days. You could take John Prine’s view and just say, “That’s the way that the world goes round, you’re up one day, the next you’re down. It’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown. That’s the way that the world goes ‘round.” Or you could subscribe to R.E.M’s slightly more pessimistic view that “it’s the end of the world as we know it.” Either way, it will all be over soon. And, as Kristofferson warned in Eye of the Storm, “from here to the end is what matters.”
The stress won’t go away, but I’ll settle for listening to tunes on the late-night drives back from Frankfort. The Martin most likely will be stuck in the corner next week.
Other legislation that cleared the Senate this week:
- House Bill 38 would add publicly owned playgrounds to the areas from which registered sex offenders are barred, unless they receive advanced written permission from the local legislative body responsible for such facilities. The House passed this bill 91-3, and the Senate voted 37-0.
- House Bill 222 would bar shock probation for those convicted of second degree manslaughter or reckless homicide while driving drunk. This removes the discretion judges currently have in such cases. The House vote was 91-0, and the Senate vote was 33-4.
- House Bill 269, which I supported, would allow relatives who are currently ineligible for employment in a school district to serve as substitutes for certified or classified personnel. Nepotism is always a concern, but the need for subs in many school districts is substantial. The vote was 99-0 in the House, and 35-3 in the Senate.
- Senate Bill 215 would create the Kentucky Coal Fields Endowment Fund and appropriate $7.5 million annually from the state portion of coal severance tax revenue. Since the beginning, severance proceeds were supposed to be used to diversify the coal economy in Eastern and Western Kentucky, because coal reserves will eventually play out. However, there is general agreement they have not been used effectively, and the Appalachian coal industry is in what many fear is a death spiral. .We have to hope this endowment will produce better results. SB 215 cleared the Senate 37-0.
- House Bill 35 would have Kentucky join more than 31 states that allow for the creation of public benefit corporations, which, while still maximizing profits, invest some private funds for public benefit. I supported this bill, which passed the Senate 37-1 after clearing the House 78-17.
- House Bill 195 would replace the familiar G. E. D. It could require the Council on Post-secondary Education to align programs with College and Career Readiness Standards or similar standards that, upon completion, result in a High School Equivalency Diploma. The bill won unanimous support in both the House and Senate.
- House Bill 374 focused on background checks. It would require that anyone hired by the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and the Administrative Office of the Courts for a job involving the care and supervision of children would be subjected to such an inquiry. Currently this is only required for those whose positions involve supervisory or disciplinary power over minors. HB 374 also allows the use of ongoing FBI fingerprint check follow-ups on foster and adoptive parents as well as other adults in the household, and on childcare staff. Also, childcare staff must submit to a state and national fingerprint background check. The measure passed unanimously in both House and Senate.
- House Concurrent Resolution 59 would set aside April 6 of this year as World War One Centennial Day, on which to officially honor those who served in the “Great War” - a conflict that changed history worldwide and has implications in headlines to this day. Support was unanimous in both chambers.
Although we have completed 26 of our scheduled 30 legislative working days, there's still time to have an impact on bills that remain to be addressed. I need input from you, and I'm always available by regular post, through email (email@example.com) or on my cell phone (502-432-1979.)
You also can get involved by contacting other members of the legislature, especially committee chairs and leadership of both chambers. You can call them on the Legislative Message Line at (800-372-7181). To check the status of a bill or to find legislators you want to contact, go to http://www.lrc.ky.gov/.