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December 31, 2008

Reforming the state House

Guest Commentary by Reps. Carl Rollins, Mary Lou Marzian and David Watkins

FRANKFORT — The Kentucky House of Representatives, to the casual visitor, seems like an arcane, dysfunctional system. At times, this may not be far from the truth.

Since legislative power was wrestled from the governor in the 1970s, the Kentucky House and Senate have consolidated decision-making in the leadership of each chamber. Decisions typically are made from the top, trickling down to the rank-and-file legislators, who then become rubber stamps for policies made by the majority leaders in each chamber. Legislators not in the handful of leadership positions — the speaker, speaker pro tem, majority leader, majority whip and majority caucus chair — have gained little ground from the days when all legislation was dictated by the executive branch.

In the 21st century this type of top-down leadership is dysfunctional. In today’s corporations, nonprofits and effective governments, leaders’ hands are strengthened when the team that carries out the work of the organization is respected enough to help shape the vision and paths to success. A spirit of openness and respect are the hallmarks of such organizations.

To ensure the Kentucky House of Representatives is included in the list of enlightened systems that are inclusive, open and efficient, a group of representatives has spent seven months crafting reforms that promise to transform the House from arcane to functional, assuring all taxpayers a better form of representative democracy. These new rules would:

1) Require regular legislative sessions to end by constitutional deadlines. This would ensure that we don’t have a repeat of the most recent legislative session, in which the hands of the clock in the House chamber were stopped minutes before midnight on the last day and proposed laws continued to be voted on beyond the time limit set by the Kentucky Constitution.

2) Ensure that House members on conference committees appointed to hammer out differences between the House and Senate on bills are sponsors of the legislation under discussion, sponsors of similar Senate bills, or members of a committee with jurisdiction over the issue. This would ensure that rank-and-file members of the House have a voice on these important panels rather than leaving much of the decision making in the hands of legislative leaders.

3) Require the majority caucus to meet at least once a week during legislative sessions and to post the schedule for meetings in the House chamber and in the legislative record. Written agendas would be made available to members at least three hours prior to the meeting unless it is a special meeting.

4) Increase the influence of interim legislative committees, which meet between legislative sessions, by creating a “fast-track” approach that would allow bills approved by interim committees to be posted by committee chairs during the first four days of a legislative session.

5) Improve efficiency by creating a separate order of business for “Introduction of Guests and Presentation of Special Entertainment” and setting a 30-minute time limit.

6) Add a member-at-large to the House Committee on Committees, the panel that assigns bills to legislative committees. The member-at-large would serve as the committee chair.

7) Prohibit a member of the Committee on Committees from serving as a member of the Appropriations and Revenue Committee or a budget subcommittee.

8) Open meetings of the Rules Committee to all and permit recording devices and cameras to be used. Only at-large members (not leadership) would be allowed to serve as chair or vice-chair of the Rules Committee.

9) Allow the removal of a member of a committee only with the approval of a majority of the members of the Committee on Committees.

10) Require communication between the House and Senate to ensure sufficient time for the Senate to consider legislation. Rather than having a last-minute flood of bills passing through the chamber at the end of each session, the last two legislative days of a session would be restricted to the consideration of conference and free conference committee reports, and final passage and enrollment of legislation.

11) Improve efficiency in the House chamber by requiring all bills reported by a standing committee with a regular “should pass” or “should pass with committee amendment/substitute attached” recommendation to be placed in a consent calendar, if they receive the unanimous vote of the members present. Measures could be removed from the consent calendar if any member files an objection or a floor amendment.

These proposed changes might seem like inside baseball to those who don’t keep close tabs on legislative operations, but their impact would be widespread. Citizens across the state could have greater confidence that their elected representatives had a strong voice at the state capitol and a real influence in making decisions. Sunlight and transparency would be welcome with a new spirit of openness. In short, our state would have a body of elected representatives operating in a system that honors the highest ideals and best practices of our representative democracy.

 

Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, is the sponsor of BR 150. Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, and Rep. David Watkins, D-Henderson, are both cosponsors of the measure.