Friday, March 17

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When I called after we recessed to check on my own proposal, Senate Bill 62, a friendly voice in the Governor's office said, wearily, “We've received 108 bills in the last two days.”

I got the message.

An enormous amount of legislation cleared the General Assembly in the waning days of the 2017 session - some good and some bad. I’m just now digging out to get you a newsletter. The big office on the first floor has a lot of work to do too, deciding what will get the Governor's OK.

I hope SB 62 makes the cut, because it will protect health savings accounts from garnishment, and those accounts are going to be used more and more often for access to care.

Many bills will be signed into law, including, most obviously, the legislation allowing charter schools, and the companion bill that siphons public school funds into them. These are high visibility measures. They mostly complete Governor Bevin's regular session agenda. Their future is certain as that of the blue-footed booby birds, which (according to a story in last week's New York Times) are thriving in the Galapagos Islands.

These are not good bills – not just in my assessment but in the view of every Jefferson County School Board member, the JCPS administration, teachers, a strong majority of our county’s elected officials, the head of the local NAACP, pastors of some of our biggestchurches, many other faith leaders, and the absolutely overwhelming majority of constituents who have reached me by phone, by email and in person.

So how did these bills pass, given that the Republicans in charge at Frankfort claim to want government that's closest to the people? Well, as one of the committee chairman explained with a chuckle, when pushing some of the “War on Louisville” to passage, “We're for local control, except when we're not.”

When it comes to our local school system, this is not a laughing matter. Indeed, regardless of where you sit on the ideological spectrum, it's shameful that charter bills were rushed to passage so late in the session, before we had a chance to read through them and analyze the impact they will have on JCPS and other school systems around the Commonwealth. 

I’ve consistently preached that major policy changes require buy-in from both parties. That didn’t happen. HB 520, the charter school authorization bill, was one of the last bills introduced this session. Both the House and the Senate then had to play parliamentary parlor tricks to get it through the respective chambers. Versions of the bill were “revised” in the dead of night, introduced in specially-called early morning meetings, and rushed through limited floor debate so they would pass. 

The result was as expected: so many flaws that several members of the majority Party joined the minority in opposition. Part of the reason for the bipartisan backlash is the legislation (1) does not limit to the number of charter schools that can be authorized, (2) allows the Mayor of Louisville to authorize charters, (3) diverts public money, and (4) will convert a public school into a charter if the proposal receives support from a mere 60% of the students’ parents. Perhaps most telling is that those pushing the bill refused to allow amendments that would prohibit for-profit companies from running charter schools. This is why the final bill received only 53 votes in the House. 

The most infuriating moment came when, after stonewalling every Democratic question about where the money was coming from to fund charter schools, Senate leadership arranged a sudden meeting of the Appropriations & Revenue Committee, on which I sit, and re-opened the state budget. That's when the meager allocations that already shortchange our public schools were robbed for charter money, just as my Democratic colleagues and I repeatedly warned would happen.

I'm not now, nor have I ever been, opposed to non-profit charter schools as a concept. But we were not voting on a concept. We were voting on legislation – specific proposals that surfaced at the last minute without input from stakeholders or scrutiny in hearings.

The Times article I mentioned earlier said that the blue-footed boobies are able to endure a relentless pecking and biting by older siblings. These charter bills – like a couple of booby birds – survived in spite of every valid question, every justified complaint, every request for fairness and every plea for more time.

Somewhere in that great TV series The Wire, which my wife and I have been watching late at night when I return from Frankfort, there's a character named Rupert Bond. At one point he asks another prosecutor named Rhonda Pearlman, “What the (heck) just happened?” To which she replies, “Whatever it is, they don't teach it in law school.”

So what do you do, as a legislator, when you are blindsided like that? You do your best and move on. It's like the fictional Baltimore politician Norman Wilson says, also in The Wire, “A wise man does not burn his bridges until he first knows he can part the waters.” 

We were able to bridge the partisan currents more than once during this session, in order to produce some good legislation – for example, Senate Bill 1 (a broad-ranging school reform crafted carefully over three years, with input from many stakeholders and interest groups) and Senate Bill 120 (a criminal justice reform, on which I worked, that would allow training and licensing inmates for certain jobs on the outside and would authorize a pilot program with more drug treatment and better supervision for parolees).

Bunk the good cop warns The Wire's most popular character, Omar the hoodlum, “A man must have a code.” And that's true. But as the program's tragic hero, Stringer Bell, explains to drug trade underling Bodie, “This here game is more than the rep you carry...You gotta be fierce...but more than that, you gotta show some flex...give and take on both sides.”

Searing insight is one reason so many critics call The Wire the best TV series of the 21st Century.

One final bill to mention, and it was a no-brainer. House Bill 410 meets a federal mandate that kicks in Jan. 1, 2019, by creating an enhanced driver’s license usable for boarding domestic airline flights and entering some federal facilities. You also would be allowed to have a “standard” driver's license or a state ID card, but both will be issued for eight years instead of the current four. 

The game is not finished in Frankfort. The governor has several days to pile through the stack of bills sent to him by lawmakers. We in turn will reconvene for two days on Mar. 29 and Mar. 30, when it will be possible to pass additional bills and, if a simple majority chooses, override gubernatorial vetoes. I'll be trying to make sure another bill of mine, SB 235, takes the last step toward approval in the House. It's designed to encourage business in Kentucky by helping streamline and update the state's business statutes.

It's a privilege to work on behalf of the people, but it will be a bit of a relief when this hectic “short” session of the legislature ends. I need a few 40-degree days.

Maybe you don't know the most famous quote from The Wire Stringer Bell's great soliloquy about 40-degree days. So here it is, slightly cleaned up:

“That's like a 40-degree day. Ain't nobody got nuttin' to say about a 40-degree day. Fifty? Bring a smile to your face. Sixty? (People) are damn near barbecuing... Go down to 20? (People) get they (high hat) on. Get they blood complainin'. But 40? Nobody give a (hoot) about 40. Nobody remember 40. And ya'll...giving me way too many 40-degree days.” 

I could use a few.

Robert Pieroni