Legislation has become a dirty word over the past few months of partisan wrangling in Frankfort.
Some citizens say lawmakers wasted time, and money, working on bills that should have been passed months ago. Needless to say, the special session concluded last week with the passage of a Transportation budget and bill to crack down on pain pill abuses was considered by some to be the biggest time waster of all.
And I have to admit that, in a way, the critics are right.
Having both Republicans and Democrats calling the shots during a legislative session—as is the case in Kentucky—can be frustrating and, yes, it can use up a lot of time that could be saved if every legislator had the same exact legislative agenda. But we don’t all have the same exact agenda. And the reason for that is because Kentuckians are not all the same.
Different regions of the state have different industries, natural resources, and populations that require different kinds of state legislative attention. Louisville and Northern Kentucky are heavy manufacturing centers and transportation hubs that rely heavily on funding for airports, bridges and workforce development training. In Eastern Kentucky, lawmakers anymore are focusing as much on the region’s contributions to postsecondary education and medical training at institutions like the University of Pikeville as they do on coal mining. Expanding and maintaining the economic pull of the state’s horse industry while expanding the reach of the University of Kentucky as a potential Top 20 research institution is still a top goal for Central Kentucky, while Western Kentucky’s role as the bedrock for many of the state’s agricultural industries has melded with technology and diplomacy to make the region a growing international center.
Now, take those regions and break them into county, cities, even neighborhoods—each with a specific need and a lawmaker, or lawmakers, who are willing to work their fingers to the bone to meet that need and you have a lot of separate agendas that are brought to any given session, in any given year.
How do lawmakers handle the different agendas brought to the legislative table? They compromise. A Pike County lawmaker will vote for a Jefferson County lawmaker’s legislation to help, say, the Metropolitan College that funnels workers to UPS in exchange for the Jefferson County lawmaker’s support of a coal mining bill. A Calloway County lawmaker will support more funding for capital construction at the University of Kentucky in exchange for a Fayette County lawmaker’s support of improvements at Murray State.
This system of compromise works pretty well among lawmakers from different constituencies most of the time. The difficulties arise when a lawmaker is asked to compromise on his or her personal or party ideology.
For example, a lawmaker who is against any tax increase—as most are these days—is much more likely to throw his or her support behind funding for a dairy cooperative in another lawmaker’s district if the coop will be funded with existing revenues rather than an increase in taxes. You can just go ahead and assume that any bill that proposes a tax increase, casino gambling, voting rights for felons, or that would address any other “hot button” ideological issue is sure to derail somewhere along the road every bill in the Kentucky General Assembly must take to become law.
Lucky for us, there are times when the majority of both the House and Senate share ideologies about issues. Every lawmaker, we hope, want our children to be safe from harm. We want to protect our elderly and persons with disabilities who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. We want to stop illegal drug abuse and curb the prescription drug abuse that claims the lives of at least three Kentuckians a day. We do have shared goals.
Our ability to compromise where our ideologies meet is what enabled the House and Senate to get past our differences and come to an agreement on legislation in the special session that cracks down on improper prescribing practices. It is what helped us reach agreement, and pass, a $19.2 billion state budget in the regular legislative session that will, among many other things, allow Kentucky to:
— Keep base per-pupil school funding at the same level (around $3,830) in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 and this fiscal year;
— Allow an additional 600 persons with intellectual disabilities to live in their own communities rather than an institution;
— Fully fund merit scholarships that Kentucky high school students earn for college based on their high school GPA and/or his or her ACT composite score;
— Support our county jails by appropriating $9 million to assist with county jail costs and $6.7 million more to help the jails pay for substance abuse treatment for inmates.
—Exempt from any budget cuts funding for teacher’s retirement, coal severance funds, public advocacy, local prosecutors (who are actually getting an extra $1 million over the biennium), Medicaid, Corrections, and Veteran’s Affairs, among other areas.
These are good uses of our budget dollars, and benefit all of Kentucky. Compromise is not always possible, but the benefits of finding the areas where it is possible make all the frustration of the legislative process worthwhile.
Have a great week.