Friday, March 16

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Bad news and good news this week.

The bad: We’ve reached day 51 in a 60-day legislative session, but the General Assembly has not passed either a state budget or pension reform, nor is quick success in view on the horizon.

The budget, after being passed through the House, has had no meaningful hearings in the Senate. At this point, the best we can hope is the Senate Majority will ram it through next week and send it back to the House, so the two chambers can, hopefully, craft a workable plan. Not exactly the legislative fate you would desire for what one of my predecessors, Senator David Karem, often called “the State’s most important policy document.”

Pension reform is not faring much better. We know we need to come together and (1) find funding and (2) make appropriate structural changes. This will require shared sacrifice. Problem is, the only people being asked to sacrifice on behalf of a teacher pension fix are teachers themselves. Meanwhile, Governor Matt Bevin’s recent contribution to the dialogue – an incendiary interview this week on 99.9 FM, the “Big Dawg,” in Campbellsville – likely eliminated any hope of meaningful pension reform happening this session.

As reporter Ryland Barton described it, the Governor compared protesting teachers to the fair-weather patriots who hoarded butter, sugar, and steel during World War II. He likened teachers to unpatriotic lawbreakers who dodged ration rules and risked ten years in prison or a $10,000 fine, or both.

The governor said he was “truly confused” by teacher protests, which he called the “most bizarre thing I’ve ever experienced.” He created confusion of his own by claiming teachers are “the only people in Kentucky that get a pay raise every year after they retire.” Presumably, he was referring to the legally installed cost-of-living increases that teachers already have pre-funded and that the GOP pension plan would reduce. My view: Just because teachers want the COLAs they are due, does not make them (as he claimed on WVLC) “remarkably selfish and shortsighted.” Teachers’ legitimate claims are not “straight up wanting more than [their] fair share.”

Nevertheless, the governor claims to be “flabbergasted at how remarkably uninformed folks are” and warns, “You can’t win an argument with an ignorant person?”

My friend Adam Watson stopped practicing law to make craft beer, and still runs Against the Grain Brewery in Louisville. During a business argument, he reverted to his legal training, causing his frustrated adversary to scream, “Stop using those fancy lawyer words.” “Fancy Lawyer Words” is still the name of one of his beers.

If the governor is really that upset, I recommend the phrase “Vincit qui se vincit." Those are fancy words meaning, “He conquers who conquers himself.”

In the same extraordinary interview, the governor dissed lawmakers who do not agree with him, claiming, “Nobody wants to do anything.” That statement ignores the three sessions in the past 10 years in which we indeed HAVE taken steps to improve the pension situation. It ignores the fact that the GOP pension plan was written by Republicans, behind closed doors, with no meaningful invitation to participate extended to Democrats or stakeholders.

It ignores House Bill (HB) 539, a pension fix introduced this session that caps the State’s future monetary investment while maintaining sufficient benefits to attract and retain teachers. This plan has been endorsed by several education groups and the Bluegrass Institute (a very conservative think tank) but has yet to receive a hearing. And it ignores two years’ worth of proposals, even some from me, to fix the pension system, not only with not structural change but also with new revenue: proceeds from business-friendly tax reform, expanded gaming, sports gaming, and medical marijuana.

Governor Bevin said lawmakers who don’t knuckle under to his wishes on pension reform “should find a different profession.” He likened us to Broward County deputies who failed to enter Stoneman Douglas High School when a mass murderer was shooting up the place. I will let you judge the fairness of that comparison.

The only way we can solve the pension problem is to deal with facts, including the legal and contractual promises made to teachers, and to embrace shared sacrifice by raising additional state revenue and making structural changes going forward. 

In his “Big Dawg” interview, the Governor quoted Edmund Burke’s most famous dictum: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Perhaps he forgot that Burke also said, “There is a boundary to men's passions when they act from feeling.”

Clearly, he didn’t heed this Burke warning, “It is ordained, in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Remember, every Kentuckian is as free as the Governor to raise his or her voice. Jeanette McCue raised her voice about the glitch in Kentucky law that made her responsible for the divorce case legal bills of the husband who was convicted of abusing her, and it provoked change. This week I was able to shepherd “Jeanette’s Bill,” which would end this injustice, through the House of Representatives. It has been enrolled and now awaits the Governor’s approval.

Kelly Knoop came to see me this week, in her wheelchair, raising her voice in a recorded message. She has worked with Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw and Secretary of State Allison Grimes to see that accessible voting machines are available to differently-abled people in every Jefferson County precinct. Her voice was heard.

Teachers continue to journey to Frankfort by the hundreds and thousands. As teachers have shown, speaking up can change minds, and votes.

Also raising their voices were students from across Kentucky who stood in the wind before the Capitol to demand action against gun violence. Whether they were heard remains to be seen.

While we wait for sensible, responsible gun legislation, the Senate acted on these measures this week:

  • Senate Bill 228. This is my proposal, which would tighten up the rules involving the sports agents who so often prey on talented young athletes and their families. Like a Law & Orderepisode, this measure seems like it was ripped straight from the headlines. It’s actually part of a larger effort from the Uniform Law Commission to get states across the country to do a better job protecting student athletes. The bill was approved 35-0.
  • Senate Bill (SB) 237. This is a bill that intends to protect free speech on public campuses in Kentucky. It responds to unfortunate situations that have developed, mostly elsewhere, in which campus speakers have been shouted down, hassled, and/or disinvited. I believe these are the places where we want maximal discussion and dialogue – as free and open a competition of ideas as we can provide. The First Amendment has no more welcome home than at colleges and universities. I received no negative feedback on SB 237 from any higher education source in Kentucky. I voted yes, and the bill passed 27-11.
  • Senate Bill 152 was approved 37-0. It would allow school district to provide extra compensation - in addition to that provided in the single salary scale - for all classroom teachers in a school identified as being in “targeted,” or “comprehensive support and improved” status. The point is to encourage quality teachers to accept and remain in assignments at schools that are specially challenged.
  • Senate Bill 137 was approved 29-9, and I voted yes. It would create a new exception to the hearsay rule in cases involving child abuse.
  • Senate Bill 6. This proposal would strengthen the system for safe disposal of controlled substances. I voted yes, and the bill passed 34-2.
  • Senate Bill (SB) 210 passed 36-0, and I voted yes. It increases the penalties for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon when that person commits a new crime that involves a firearm. The sponsor, Dan Seum, introduced SB 210 at the request of Louisville’s mayor, police, and prosecutors. He explained that “it enhances the penalties the second time around,” as part of an effort to reduce gun violence.
  • House Bill 191 will allow eye prescriptions arranged over the internet. However, it imposes regulations that will help ensure that the patient receives the same quality exam he or she would receive in person at a local provider’s office. The measure was amended after consultations with Kentucky professionals. I voted yes, and the bill passed 36-0.
  • House Bill (HB) 101 expands third-degree rape or sodomy to include an adult having sex with a 16 or 17 year old if the age difference is 10 years or greater. A violation of HB 101 would be punishable by up to five years in prison. The thought is that this measure would stop an accused rapist from mounting a trial defense that the sexual intercourse was consensual when the victim was 16 or 17 and the defendant was at least 10 years older. Twenty-four other states have passed similar laws. I voted yes, and the bill passed 34-1.
  •  House Bill (HB) 33 clarifies how motorists interact with bicyclists. The legislation would require drivers to keep vehicles at least three feet away from bicyclists during an attempt to pass. If that much space is not available, HB 33 states that the drivers must use “reasonable caution” when passing cyclists. Another provision allows a driver to cross a yellow line to pass as long as the coast is clear. An amendment would prohibit cyclists from riding more than two abreast in a highway lane unless the roadway is marked for bicycle use. The Senate has passed similar legislation during the prior two sessions that did not become law. I voted yes, and the bill passed 36-0.

My parents grew up in the 60’s, so I grew up listening to their music (similarly, my kindergarten son can sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). The Riverias recorded a song called “California Sun” in 1964 in which they warn, “The days are short and the nights are long.” We have a maximum of nine legislative days left this session. It might not sound like much time, but we’ll be here late every day. Much will transpire. For those of you still interested in the process – heck, for those of you who’ve read this far – please continue to use your voice to influence the laws you want to see from your government.

Robert Pieroni2018