Friday, March 23

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Columnist Lewis Grizzard wrote a book titled “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.” That just about sums up how I’m feeling after a tough week in Frankfort and a demoralizing loss by the University of Kentucky Wildcats. 

Deep breath. This too shall pass.

I actually do love my work as a state senator.

It may not seem that way because I report the downs as well as the ups of the legislative week. Still, I prize the opportunity to have an impact for good on the lives of my fellow Kentuckians. Wouldn’t I be plum crazy not to?

One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Kentuckian, and Grammy winner Sturgill Simpson, had something to say about what it is like to love something (or someone).

Been insane on a train but I'm still me again
and the place where I hold you is true
But I'd have to be crazy, plum out of my mind
To fall out of love with you.

I was honored to host Sturgill and his family on the floor of the Senate this week and note his rise in the country music firmament, praise the honesty of his music, pass a resolution honoring his accomplishments, and bestow on him the honor of becoming a Kentucky Colonel. (If you haven’t listened to his music, do yourself a favor and immediately plug his name into YouTube. His music is awesome. More importantly, so is he.)

That was the big up for this week.

The downside was the Senate’s passage of a budget package that, unlike the House version adopted earlier, made no effort to raise new revenue. As with any budget bill, it did some things I like, but more things I don’t. It moved money around like a carney trickster shuffling cups to hide a pea. It cut our public colleges and universities yet again and continued years of skimpy support for elementary and secondary schools. It robbed the reserves of the public employee health care program, although not as much as the House bill did. It restored some of the arbitrary cuts on the Governor’s original hit list but left many worthy programs and services unfunded. I’d have to be crazy, or care nothing about the public weal, to cheer that act. 

Sturgill put it this way in a song called Some Days:

Well some days you kill it and some days you just choke
Some days you blast off and some days you just smoke

The Senate majority’s budget package was a choke. I voted no.

The better news is that the real budget negotiations begin today and continue over the weekend as a conference committee tries to harmonize the very different Senate and House versions of our most important policy document. But, as I have said endlessly, any budget plan that fails to raise new money is out of tune with the needs and expectations of Kentucky citizens who want efficient but effective government. Unlike the feds, we cannot borrow. We should have the gumption to do what is needed and what’s right.

There was no need to do what the Senate did on workers’ compensation this week, passing a bill that reduces injured employees’ access to benefits. The Governor’s most recent report says workers’ comp premiums have decreased for 12 straight years. Why this bill? Why ignore the testimony from police officers who claim they will likely lose benefits for injuries suffered in the line of duty, or for the PTSD that often accompanies those incidents? Where is the need to kick coal miners in the gut, just when the federal government reports black lung disease is on the rise again?

House Bill 2 is nothing more than an effort to improve the expense ledger of business at the expense of workers. I have said many times, you can be pro-business without being anti-worker. We can do the right thing with this program without hurting, among others, the people who put on a uniform every day to protect us or those who risk life and limb underground to dig cheap energy for us.

Republicans claim to be friends of coal. Perhaps they should try being friends of coal miners. Sturgill Simpson gets it. He is originally from Eastern Kentucky and is the first male on his mother’s side of the family not to work as a miner. Those who voted in favor of HB 2 should have listened to his song “Old King Coal” in which he warns:

I'll be one of the first in a long long line
not to go down from that old black lung

This is also the time of year when we have to pay close attention to language inserted into otherwise seemingly innocuous bills. As Sturgill sings, “you ain’t gotta read between the lines, you just gotta turn the page.” I learned that lesson this week when a library reorganization bill was amended to include a major change in our open records laws.

The change at issue was described as a “mere codification” of an Attorney General’s opinion protecting from discloser of the personal information transmitted on personal cell phones and email accounts by citizen legislators under our Open Records Act. I am a huge proponent of sunshine, but such language isn’t completely unreasonable given that most of us have full-time jobs outside of government. The actual wording of the bill, however, went way too far and would have shielded the communications of every government employee from disclosure so long as they were not using a government phone or email account. For example, this new law would keep private an email sent by a Cabinet Secretary on a government-issued computer, in a government-supplied office, discussing government business, if sent while using a Gmail account.

It does not take an expert to quickly realize the new provision would savage our government-in-the-sunshine law. The guy who wrote the statute in question said this would be a disaster: "It provides a blueprint for any public official who does not want his public actions to be traced on public records by using a personal cell phone or a personal computer."  I argued these points to my colleagues in the Senate, and the bill was pulled from the floor for further study. I hope we can work together and take a second look at it.

Not everything we did this week would make for a sad country song. We did pass a good two-year road plan, and my Republican colleague from Oldham County, Ernie Harris, demonstrated how to get a unanimous vote on a potentially vexatious bill. He met with members of both parties. When it came to Jefferson County projects, he even met with the Democratic mayor of Louisville. He included stakeholders. He conducted a real process. He eased House Bill 202 out of the Senate 37-0.

We also had a particularly poignant moment on the Senate floor this week when we passed House Bill 128, requiring public middle and high schools to teach children about the Holocaust. This proposal has been championed by middle school teacher Fred Whittaker and his students for 13 years and will now become law. Named the “Ann Klein and Fred Gross Holocaust Education Act,” the bill honors both Mr. Gross, who survived the Holocaust as a child and later taught about it, and Ms. Klein, a survivor of Auschwitz and a Holocaust educator who died in 2012.

Mr. Whittaker teaches in my Senate District, Mr. Gross still lives in the District, and so does Ms. Klein’s daughter. I was also honored to host them in the Senate this week as they watched their bill come for a vote on the Senate floor. All received a standing ovation from the Senate after final passage. Mazel Tov to everyone involved!

Here is some more legislation of interest that cleared the Senate this week:

  • House Bill 132 establishes financial literacy as a high school graduation requirement, which would go into effect with students who are freshmen in 2020-21. Deciding what would satisfy this requirement would be up to the school-based decision-making council or principal. Guidelines would be developed by the state level. There’s a strong case for this bill, since Kentucky students currently rank 48th in financial literacy.
  • Senate Bill 231 creates a Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship to help make sure that any Kentuckian who has not yet earned a postsecondary degree will have affordable access to earning an industry-recognized certificate or diploma.
  • House Bill 46 permits security freezes to be requested by methods that are established by a consumer reporting agency and allows consumers to request a replacement personal ID number or password the same way they made the original security freeze request.
  • Senate Bill 70 changes statutes so that Kentucky is in compliance with a Supreme Court opinion that current law relating to sex offenders is unconstitutional. It prohibits registered sex offenders from knowingly using electronic communications to solicit, or contact, anyone under the age of 18.
  • Senate Bill 155 requires that employees of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet who have access to, or use of, federal tax information must submit to a state and federal criminal background check.
  • House Bill 68 offers help to first responders who are confronted with tragic and horrific events in the course of their work. It would enable them to access mental health and wellness programs. Central to this is a post-critical-incident seminar program established by the FBI in the 1980s. Funding would come from donations, grants, and lines in the state Department of Criminal Justice training budget.
  • House Bill 454 is this session’s abortion bill. This is an intractable issue on which people of good will have diametrically opposed points of view. It should be debated with respect for both sides, not with hyper-emotional arguments, and should consider the constitutionality of the proposal. This particular bill has been successfully challenged in other states and will lead to a lawsuit in Kentucky. It passed 31-5. I voted no.
  • House Bill 290 sets conditions for home-schooled individuals or teams to compete in state-sponsored interscholastic sports. They would be able to participate in any state-sponsored interscholastic athletic sport in Kentucky as long as the home-schooled students and their coaches comply with set requirements. However, they would not be allowed to participate in sanctioned conferences or tournaments or be eligible for championship titles or other recognition sponsored by the state. I disagree with this part of the bill but voted yes. With legislation, something is usually better than nothing.

On the difficult issues I try to avoid hot rhetoric and fall back on reason and restraint. I sometimes fail… all have sinned and come short of the glory. But I try to keep it between the lines. Which is the name of a wonderful Sturgill Simpson song. Here, to close this missive, are some of the lyrics:

Don't turn mailboxes into baseballs
Don't get busted selling at seventeen
Those thoughts are absurd, to a dirty home
Motor oil is motor oil
Just keep the engine clean
Keep your eyes on the prize
Everything will be fine
Long as you stay in school
Stay off the hard stuff
And keep between the lines

Robert Pieroni2018