Issue May 2, 2006

Bluegrass Report: Jody Richards should quit

There’s no nice way to say it. The time has come for Kentucky Speaker of the House Jody Richards (D-Bowling Green) to give up his leadership post or be removed.

The sooner, the better.

The outcome of the recent state budget debacle, and the incomprehensible decision by Speaker Richards to give up the constitutional check on executive power, and therefore forego any opportunity to deal with gubernatorial budget vetoes, has left rank-and-file Democrats reeling.

After watching Richards repeatedly outmaneuvered by Republicans, and unwilling to demonstrate political courage under fire, the time has come for Kentucky’s longest-serving Speaker of the House to hang up his gloves — or for House Democrats to force him to do so involuntarily.

Since 2001, the Democrats’ advantage in the House has shrunk from 66-34 to just 56-44, with most of the damage occurring in the 2004 election after Richards acquiesced and agreed to put the gay marriage amendment on the November ballot (after initially killing the measure). Many believe that’s why Democrats lost seven seats.

Today, Republicans hold more House seats than at any time since 1920.
But Richards’ actions during this General Assembly have left Democrats speechless — at a time when Fletcher remains one of the most unpopular governors in the nation, still under investigation for political corruption, and when a culture of corruption has overwhelmed the Republican Party and while President Bush rivals Fletcher in unpopularity.

Since January, Richards has publicly supported Fletcher’s call for teaching creationism in public school science classes; dropped any effort to strengthen the state’s Merit System despite repeated promises to the contrary last year (even declaring “we can do it some other time” and “it’s not that important”); and allowed Senate President David Williams (R-Burkesville) to slip in the now-famous $11 million for a new pharmacy school at the religious college, The University of the Cumberlands, just as it expelled a student for simply acknowledging his sexual orientation.

That project was never part of the Senate version of the budget and was only added during the week-long secret negotiation session behind closed doors, with Richards’ agreement. After controversy erupted over the expulsion and funding, Richards refused to criticize the school’s actions or ask Fletcher to veto the funding.

Richards also refused to allow a House floor vote on expanded gaming, despite comments to the Owensboro Chamber of Commerce in December that the issue would be on the “front burner.” He never allowed a vote on the re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada, despite Auditor Crit Luallen’s exhaustive work on the subject.

But it was Richards’ decision to relinquish the constitutional right to override gubernatorial vetoes that looks like the final straw.

As a matter of course, the legislature has typically saved two days at the end of each session, which allows time to consider overriding gubernatorial line-item vetoes before they become law. While a budget agreement was reached in time to preserve those “veto days” last month, Richards did not want to disrupt the vacation plans of some members. So he decided instead to delay the budget vote until the week of April 10, thus giving Fletcher the right to veto whatever he wished without any possibility of being overturned.

At the time, Richards expressed public confidence that Fletcher would show restraint and not veto anything of importance.

Instead, Fletcher stripped the University of Louisville, and other public universities, of funding for important capital projects, vetoed $79.1 million in coal-severance tax projects in overwhelmingly Democratic coal counties, and struck language that would have required voters to elect a number of newly created judgeships so he could appoint them instead.

Richards now says he is “devastated” by the vetoes and believes legal action will be necessary to restore some of the funding. Last week he admitted “we made a mistake” and vowed to “never let that happen again.”
But as someone mentioned to me last week, Richards is like Charlie Brown, naively trusting Republicans not to move the football at the last minute. He finds himself on the ground every time, wondering how it happened again.

The time is long overdue to thank Speaker Richards for his years of public service and allow him to step down gracefully so Democrats can elect a new leader who will support Democratic principles, keep this corrupt administration in check and not abdicate his constitutional duties so his members can go on vacation.

Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org