March 20, 2013

Smackdown, interrupted

Let’s suppose you’re a young, bright constitutional officer who is ripe for higher office and who thinks there ought to be a law. The stakes are stellar, so you mustn’t stumble. As you push a popular bill — a résumé-builder — through a politically divided legislature, there may be pushback from potential adversaries and their allies.

There are risks for them, too. If they kill or disfigure your bill, their complaints may not resonate with a skeptical electorate. If they play badly, perceptibly at the expense of the common good, you could run as the victim of partisanship. News of any controversy would heighten your name recognition and, quite possibly, your favorability.

Since you can earn a profile in courage win or lose, you wonder why your opponents would risk taking the bait. Why don’t they instead take a powder and look magnanimous? That’s what Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, did. After tasting the bait, he surfed away — on a wave of bipartisan good will.

The stage was set for a smackdown Feb. 27 as Democratic State Auditor Adam Edelen, 38, presented to a Republican-controlled Senate committee House Bill 1, which clarifies — via an online registry — the murky financial depths and shallows of Kentucky’s 1,268 special taxing districts (fire departments, libraries, etc.). Thayer, a champion of transparency, wanted it to tackle a pet peeve of governance: “I think the $4 billion being raised and spent by unelected special district board members is taxation without representation, and I’m trying to figure out a way forward on that.”

Thayer’s way forward — an amendment giving local governments veto power — was rejected by the House and threatened to doom the entire measure. Senate Minority Floor Leader R. J. Palmer, D-Winchester, with Edelen’s blessing, masterminded a great compromise. On March 12, day 28 of 30, HB 1 cleared both chambers without dissent and went to the governor’s desk. Palmer rescued the much-needed safeguards. Thayer stood tall in retreat and defined a kinder, gentler Senate — a priority of his caucus. It was a mutual win — a rare triumph of statesmanship over brinksmanship.

Equally worthy measures championed by Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, 34, and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, 40, remain in limbo as legislative leaders seem disinclined to stand down from their shameless smackdowns. Though it’s ordinary and predictable for bills promoted by rising stars to be targeted as UFOs, both have had twisted trajectories.

Senate Bill 1, a measure to ease absentee voting among Kentuckians, including military personnel deployed overseas, is sponsored by Republican Senate President Robert Stivers and is a priority for Grimes, a Democrat. They testified, side by side, in committee. But Stivers, echoing security concerns cited by two county clerks, stripped a key provision, which allows for ballots to be returned electronically. The plot thickened when The Lexington Herald-Leader confirmed that U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell had advised Stivers, further reporting, “Many Democrats are urging Grimes to run against” McConnell next year.

In response, Grimes told the paper, “My focus is fighting for our men and women in uniform, not against them.” A rebuttal was equally rabid. “What an abomination for a constitutional officer to make this comment,” roared House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown. “If we had leadership, we would call her out on it.”

The House restored the electronic-voting provision and approved the bill 57-42, but the fate of the measure rests with a panel of conferees from both chambers.

Creating a regulatory framework for industrial hemp “has been a big issue” for Republican Agriculture Commissioner Comer, “who led the ticket in the last statewide race,” said news guru Ronnie Ellis on KET’s “Comment on Kentucky.” “And it might occur to a good Democrat like (House Speaker) Greg Stumbo that he doesn’t want to give a big issue to someone who’s been mentioned as a gubernatorial candidate.”

It’s hard to understate the groundswell of support for hemp legalization via Senate Bill 50, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville. Maybe that’s why House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, spent 15 minutes lipsticking a substitute five-year study a day after Stumbo declared it dead. Whether Stumbo is actually trying to thwart Comer or just failing miserably, leaders of both parties would be wise to lay down their pitchforks. Give Comer and Grimes what they want; it’s what the people need and deserve.

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