Last Wednesday, the 30th day of the state Senate was so surreal, observers were looking for Peewee Herman to emerge from the shadows.
It was the twisted, final day of an odd-year session driven by the unbridled ambitions of a Senate president and the governor he wants to defeat this November.
It was the day that simmering, partisan resentments reached a roiling boil.
While other state chiefs are slashing services to fill budget gaps, Gov. Steve Beshear wants to move $166 million of Medicaid money from next year to now — and balance the books via “managed care” savings.
Senate Republicans, who favor across-the-board cuts, think he’s delusional.
“Why, in Kentucky, are we stuck with this lack of vision on the first floor of this Capitol?” asked Damon Thayer, R-17, of Georgetown. “I say shame on you, Steve Beshear; shame on you for putting us in this position that we are in today!”
Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-19, of Louisville, fired back: “I do understand that some of us were, perhaps, educated up North — and it may be appropriate, from that perspective, to refer to someone without their proper title. Perhaps you can even excuse someone from a Yankee perspective … but in Kentucky, we don’t do that.”
Senate President David Williams, R-16, chided Shaughnessy for his “lack of decorum” in attributing Thayer’s remarks to being “a Yankee.”
“The fact that you can’t get up and say what you want to say on this floor without someone referring to you in a pejorative way is a pretty sad situation,” said Williams, before going on to blast Beshear: “And today, the governor has another press conference, in which he continues his vitriolic and personal attacks … We will not lower ourselves to be involved in those because we’re here to do the people’s business.”
Beshear had said, “David Williams is putting petty politics and his personal ambition before the needs of Kentucky families. His inaction to address our budget gap means I, once again, have to call him back in for a special session …”
In an interview on Thursday’s edition of cn|2’s “Pure Politics,” Williams complained of Beshear, “He doesn’t ever give me the courtesy of referring to me as the Senate president …”
Host Ryan Alessi asked, “Does all this really undermine the greater policy arguments that are here, when Kentuckians are seeing you calling out the governor, the governor calling out you?”
Williams: “I’m not calling the governor out on anything.”
Alessi: “You just called him weak.”
Williams: “He is weak. He’s a weak governor … He’s mad, he’s shrill.”
Williams used to call Shaughnessy and former state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, D-13, “the shrill chorus.”
Senators from both parties noted this session’s sense of deja vu. Indeed, it began and ended with allegations of political retribution seen in the past.
In a floor speech in the first week of the 2007 session, Scorsone decried the $619,000 renovation of Republican Senate offices, including a $17,400 plasma television. Republican leaders summarily aborted his longstanding Senate Judiciary Committee membership.
Four years hence, during the first week of this session, Shaughnessy lost his most coveted panel assignment.
“Without any input from me or anyone in my party, I was removed from the Senate Education Committee,” Shaughnessy said to Williams from his floor seat. “Now, Mr. President, the Republican Party is in sound control of this chamber. You all can win, with pure arithmetic, on any issue you bring before a committee or before this body. There’s no need to squash the serious discussion of serious issues.”
For the remainder of the session, Shaughnessy attended the panel’s meetings, voiceless and voteless. On the floor, he resumed his role as the GOP leaders’ most vocal critic.
Not since 2008 had Shaughnessy been so outspoken. It was then that he challenged Williams, the chief sponsor of a bill whereby Ohio River Bridges Project “tolls could be implemented solely on the vote of the (bi-state) authority.”
Two interviews last December may have chilled relations between the two. At the time, Shaughnessy told LEO Weekly, “We’re now going to toll Spaghetti Junction, thanks to Sen. Williams’ leadership. So I think we need to be very careful, in terms of this community, when David wants to help us.”
Shaughnessy and Sen. Perry Clark, D-37, sponsored Senate Bill 43 “to prohibit the imposition of tolls or user fees on any portion of the interstate highway system currently in existence.” The measure didn’t get a hearing.
On March 8, day 29 of 30, a confirmation controversy harkened back to similar morasses of the past, including last year’s ouster of Joe Prather as chairman of the Bridges Authority. By statute, a gubernatorial appointee to the Bridges Authority is subject to Senate confirmation. Prather was forced to resign for lack of a resolution to confirm him. He had testified in the bid-rigging trial of Williams’ friend Bill Nighbert, who preceded Prather as Transportation Cabinet secretary and was acquitted.
A decade ago, Republicans blocked the confirmation of Walter Bedford Jr., the first African-American appointed to serve as an administrative law judge. Last week, the Senate approved eight resolutions “not to confirm” Beshear appointees.
“We act like we’re in a fraternity house where we can blackball people,” Shaughnessy said.
Despite bitter barbs, Shaughnessy and Williams uttered some hilarious quotes. Shaughnessy told The Courier-Journal, “Expectations for this session were low. I think they’ll be met.” And when Williams was told a proposed constitutional convention couldn’t be limited to a balanced budget amendment — and might thus open a Pandora’s box — Williams replied, “I’ve never had the opportunity to meet Pandora, but her box is frequently talked about.”
Swells of laughter surged through the Capitol Annex.
At this juncture, the most crucial insight for all of Frankfort’s warriors to ponder comes from President Richard Nixon — whose abuses against his enemies led to his resignation — upon his departure from the White House in 1974: “Never be petty. Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them — and then, you destroy yourself.”