Thursday, April 19

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Those of you who get my newsletter know how much I love music, so you won’t be surprised when I reach for a Grateful Dead lyric to sum up the 2018 Session of the General Assembly

The chorus to the Dead’s song “Truckin’” exclaims, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

We detoured onto bumpy roads and occasionally veered into chaos, but to quote the Dead again, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places, if you look at it right.” 

First, the dark moments.

When we adjourned sine die at 7:43 p.m. on Saturday, we still had not reached the most important goals: effectively addressing the pension dilemma, raising enough new revenue, and writing a defensible biennial budget. Along the way, relations between teachers and government ended in the ditch.

Teachers were shoved there by a governor whose undisciplined, unjustified slurs only made educators more determined. They reacted as most people would when menaced by a bully. They objected, loudly. They flexed political muscle. They provoked change.

Covered in an avalanche of criticism, some of it from lawmakers in his own party, the governor issued a carefully crafted evasion that substituted for an apology and promptly announced six new appointments to the Kentucky Board of Education that give him full control of the State Department of Education. His new board wasted no time in ousting the Education Commissioner during their first day on the job. It reminds me of Demi Lovato’s pop hit lyric that says, unapologetically, “Baby I’m sorry, I’m not sorry.” (Ok, it’s not the poetry penned by Dead lyricists Robert Hunter or John Perry Barlow, but it gets the point across.)

I’m not surprised that the governor is feeling a little chapped. We tweaked the pension bill and overrode the governor’s revenue and budget vetoes, which some of my friends in the majority cited as a show of legislative independence. That’s one way to look at it.

I didn’t buy the governor’s reasoning and I don’t think the overrides gave us the independence we really need. How about a show of independence from the lobbyists and special interests that helped craft these bills behind closed doors?

The most important proposals were negotiated by one party, without sufficient input, and then sprung at the last minute without proper vetting or real hearings. No wonder things sputtered to a halt and required a restart in order to fix a bunch of blunders.

I won’t tweet “mission accomplished” before I see strategic gain.

The biggest challenges went unmet:

The pension bill failed to fund our unfunded liability and threatened the recruitment of educational excellence by making future teachers’ benefits less attractive and less secure. The revenue bill helps Kentucky’s well-heeled at the expense of those with holes in their soles, while robbing momentum from the effort to pass real, comprehensive tax reform. The new budget does some good things, but the Republicans in charge (1) falsely claim to have done right by elementary and secondary education and (2) insist without apology on savaging higher education. Real economic development requires an educated workforce, not more tax breaks for the comfortable and handouts for the corporate class.

The GOP majority praised itself for funding K through 12 education “at record levels,” but teachers weren’t fooled. They know that, when adjusted for inflation, this “record” per-pupil spending is 16 percent less than it was in 2008. Support for public education is more than a decade behind. Teachers will still end up buying supplies with their own money, including things as basic as Kleenex and crayons.  And what little the majority giveth, it taketh away with a 6.5 per cent cut in preschool and extended school services and no money for textbooks and teacher professional development. Also zeroed out was a Jefferson County program that tries to keep teenage mothers in school.

President Roosevelt once said, “The school is the last thing upon which American should be willing to compromise.” The majority claims it’s doing what it can with available resources. However, as the Grateful Dead warned, “Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.”

On the other hand, light did fall on some good things during the final two days. Along with help from Senate President Robert Stivers, I was able to pass my second bill of the session. It tightens controls on so-called sports agents who exploit young athletes. These professional parasites dangle dollars in order to lure prospective signees toward shameless shoe companies and big-time college sports programs. I worked Senate Bill (SB) 228 in the House on the last night and escorted it back to the Senate for final enrolling and engrossing, so it could be sent to the first floor for Governor Bevin’s signature. (He’s already signed my other proposal, Senate Bill 68, which will end the absurdity of courts charging an abused spouse for their jailed abuser’s legal fees in divorce proceedings.)

SB 228 was a bright moment. So was last-minute shelving of House Bill (HB) 227, the so-called net-metering bill. We’ve spent years trying to get this issue right and I’ve worked hard to that end. Mark Hand offered this on the ThinkProgress website: “If (Rep. Jim) Gooch’s legislation passes, it could more than double the time it would take residents to break even on their investment in rooftop solar.” The utilities firmly believe that forcing them to buy excess rooftop solar power from a customer at the full retail rate is unfair. We absolutely must keep moving toward a compromise that advances solar buildout but treats utilities justly. We can get there. What won’t help is more rhetoric from the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, which was a source of inspiration for HB 227 sponsor Gooch.

Herewith, another Grateful Dead insight: “If I told you all that went down it would burn off both your ears.”

We had no alternative but to approve a last-minute bailout for the statewide high-speed internet buildout, without which Kentucky won’t be plugged into a technologically supercharged economy or a digitally-enhanced health care system. This program is especially important to more isolated rural areas, but it’s critically important right here in Louisville. This may be a contractual mess, maybe even a bit of a boondoggle, but we’re stuck in that contract and can’t ignore it like a roadside carcass.

Also in the waning hours, I, and others, were unable to stop passage of House Bill 169, the anti-gang bill. It takes its place next to other measures in state and federal law books that have filled our prisons and jails with a generation of young men – a disproportionate number of whom are young men of color – whose mistakes could have been, and should have been, handled in more effective, more humane, and more socially responsible ways.

There was bipartisan opposition in the Senate to this legislation. It is dangerously vague, susceptible of abuse, and comes at a cost of $20 million to taxpayers.  We all want our communities safer, but our criminal justice policies are best crafted with data and evidence, not emotion. Pushed to passage with no accompanying research that would prove its worth, we ignored evidence showing that at least some of the money spent by this bill would be better used for prevention efforts. 

The governor has been an advocate of smart criminal justice reforms, and I truly appreciate his work in this area. I hope he has his veto pen on the desk when looking at this bill.

Overall, we passed some good bills, passed some bad bills, and passed other bills in bad ways. But no matter how you see what happened, lawmakers have a responsibility to keep on truckin’. The author of the New England Patriots’ success, Bill Belichick, puts it this way: “To live in the past is to die in the present.”

You could dismiss this session for slouching toward mediocrity. I saw more than that. I saw passion and personal engagement in Frankfort like never before. People came from all over Kentucky, not only to advocate for education, but also to speak up for families of police officers killed in the line of duty, retirement security, renewable energy, medical marijuana, SCL waivers, basic dignity for female inmates, crackdowns on animal cruelty, relief from the opioid epidemic, and the list goes on. Our hallways and inboxes were never empty. And it made a difference. 

Don’t get down. As the Grateful Dead remind us, “Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings,” because “once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places, if you look at it right.”

Robert Pieroni2018