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April 11, 2006

Bluegrass Report: The ever-growing bad dream in Frankfort

What a mess.

Yesterday, the Kentucky General Assembly finally approved a two-year $18.1 billion budget bill, after first hammering out an agreement in seven days of secret, closed-door negotiations. The spending plan threw all caution to wind by heaping on a record $2.38 billion in debt, surpassing the previous record of $1.9 billion that was added by the budget passed last year. The Republican-controlled Senate led the charge on this year’s spending spree, obliviating any notion that their party stood for fiscal responsibility and restraint.

Beyond actual numbers, this year’s budget will be most remembered for its disturbing lack of transparency and as a dramatic reminder of just how politically irrelevant Gov. Fletcher has become after barely two years in office.

A veteran of many previous budget battles recently told me this year’s process had illuminated the unmistakable depletion of Fletcher’s political power, the unyielding result of the nearly yearlong scandal that has engulfed his administration.

Not only was Fletcher unable to shepherd his very public anti-union legislation, but the General Assembly effectively tossed his proposed budget in the trash upon receipt and wrote its own spending plan. During a break in budget negotiations, a reporter asked House Speaker Jody Richards (D-Bowling Green) whether Fletcher had been involved in the budget negotiations.

Richards responded, “Who?”

So irrelevant has Fletcher become that legislators even ceded their ultimate check on executive power — they gave up the period of days they have routinely kept in reserve to handle gubernatorial budget vetoes — so they could continue negotiations. While that tactic itself seems incredibly foolish, and like an abdication of their constitutional obligations to the public, it also sent a clear message that legislative leaders believe the politically impotent governor has little choice but to sign what they pass.

But the lack of transparency in the budgeting process wasn’t lost on a number of legislators who were not among the 21 members (which included just one woman) selected to meet behind closed doors last month to negotiate the size of this year’s budget pie and how to divide the slices.

After completing the final details of the budget deal, House and Senate leadership pressed for a vote within hours of legislators getting their first peek at the 664-page agreement. That caused Rep. Robin Webb (D-Grayson) to complain, “I don’t have a comfort level with this at all because of the closed nature of the process and the 11th-hour receipt of the document, and I’m a little hesitant to vote for it until I have an opportunity to know what I’m voting on.”

House leaders backed off and gave members a day to digest the voluminous plan.

This process was in sharp contrast to the days when Republican senators complained loudly about the secret budget process. Just a decade ago, it was current Senate Majority Floor Leader Dan Kelly (R-Springfield) who blasted the closed-door budget negotiations (before Republicans took control of the Senate in 2000), arguing that the public had a right to see what goes on.

Such were the days when transparency in government was at a premium.

In fact, not a single budget hearing was held this year in the Senate, which preferred instead to deal with all budget discussions in secret.

But for Kentucky’s 4 million residents, this caustic combination of gubernatorial irrelevance and legislative secrecy has led to an irresponsible spending spree unlike anything seen in Frankfort in ages, with legislators loading up whatever pork projects they wished for (such as a $6 million polar exhibit for the Louisville Zoo). They know there is little political consequence to doing so in the absence of any adult supervision in the Capitol, let alone a strong and accountable governor. Watching legislators binge on pork-barrel projects and pack the budget with record debt reminds me of watching uniformed police officers on television as they looted stores in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Just because they could.

And while Fletcher would be quite justified in vetoing a good deal of this excessive spending and borrowing, he has proven himself so tone-deaf and incapable of doing the right thing that few believe he can impart fiscal restraint with his veto pen without being partisan, petty or vindictive.

Didn’t someone around here run on a theme of cleaning up the mess in Frankfort and ending waste, fraud and abuse? Or was that just a dream?

Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org, which recently won the 2005 Koufax Award for Best State or Local Blog in the country. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org.