The first day of the session fell on my birthday. I was feeling my age, eager to feel the energy of the new senators and recall some unforgettable highlights of David Williams’ presidency. When he wickedly mimicked then-House Speaker Jody Richards, a great swell of laughter filled the chamber and the mighty Tom Jensen spilled out of his chair. His penchant for vengeance is legendary, but I’ll never forget the day he became “The Bully from Burkesville.” I remember where he stood 15 years ago and angrily enumerated years of abuse by the Democratic majority. From his perspective, he was repaying a debt. I think the only offender who escaped his wrath was a penguin who crapped on his desk.
The Senate I reentered was segregated by party — with most of the Republicans on the right side and all of the Democrats on the left. I wondered whether the restrooms and water fountains were still integrated. I must have looked stunned until somebody told me, “They want to be more like the U.S. Congress.”
“Oh, really? That dysfunctional? Well, I’ve been hanging out here for 20 years and nobody asked me. So I’m gonna take my floor privileges and go back to my office and bite my pillow.”
I never imagined how dysfunctional they could be without me. I came to recognize the big sort in the Senate as a symptom of control issues — a physical reminder that Republicans are supposed to fall in line. That’s why they put Tom Buford behind the Democrats — as an example of what happens to mavericky outliers. They get left behind!
I knew there was trouble in nirvana as soon as I arrived at the Capitol and Republicans were whispering that Sen. Chris McDaniel shouldn’t sponsor a heroin bill because he’s running for lieutenant governor and it would be dismissed as a political ploy. That first week, it sailed through committee and Senate President Bob Stivers is feeling the fatalities: “How many of those numbers would have changed but for the failure of one chamber to act on this bill?” he asked.
That’s when I realized that this train could run off the rails the same as it did last year. And I know what happened last year because I was there. During the veto interval preceding the very last day of the session, the retiring sponsor, Sen. Katie Stine, told WAVE-3’s Theo Keith, “The Johnny-come-latelys are trying to sink the boat.” There was vocal opposition to her bill among smart lawyers because of an unconstitutional presumption — a shortcut for prosecutors seeking to convict a dealer of homicide. At the bill’s first hearing — early last session — Ernie Lewis of the Kentucky Criminal Defense Lawyers Association testified that it would a shame for that flawed provision to kill an otherwise good bill. And guess what? She held out too long. So, like many priority bills at the end of a session, it became a Christmas tree for 23 hanging amendments that collapsed at midnight on day 60.
It could happen again. Democrat John Tilley’s House Bill 213 and McDaniel’s Senate Bill 5 are in a standoff. Each got a two-hour hearing last week in the judiciary committee of the opposite chamber — for discussion only. Neither can get to a conference committee without a vote, so who’s gonna blink — and when? It’s getting late.
What’s equally outrageous is Senate Bill 76, a hypocritical assault on local control after Atherton High School’s principal led an exhaustive effort to extend restroom privileges consistent with a transgender student’s identity. To hear the testimony of an Atherton sophomore who championed modesty, you would think that genitalia fly freely and abundantly — like a swarm of drones — around high school restrooms. Which begs the question, if there’s a penis in the girls’ room and no one sees it, is this hysterical frenzy remotely reasonable? Maybe Senate Education Chair Mike Wilson of Bowling Green (R-32) thinks so. He confessed, “We all like to go to the bathroom to undress with no one else in there.”
Here’s the final word up from the glowing floor speech of Sen. Morgan McGarvey (D-19), who lives a mile from Atherton: “If we don’t have the flexibility to care for everyone in those schools and we impact the learning, we impact the life, in a negative way, of just one student with this policy, isn’t that one too many? I think this topic deserves debate — but it doesn’t deserve this bill.”
Regardless, this abomination has cleared the Senate and is possessed by the House.