The segregated senate is septic

Next week in Frankfort, the Winter Games will end in a two-day marathon of statecraft which, if we’re lucky, will prolong more lives than it shortens. Thirty-day sessions (in odd-numbered years) seem to get busier and more stressful. The numbers tell the story. Last year during the 60-day session, 240 bills were filed in the Senate and 584 were filed in the House. This year, there was half as much time to consider almost as many measures: 209 in the Senate and 548 in the House. Only a fraction will become law. It’s a horribly wasteful, hideously inefficient process corrupted by money and politics. It’s a royal pain for lawmakers, support staff and reporters, who risk health, safety and relationships to serve the “Sausagewealth.” After 19 years, I think I’m done. I had my fill of carnage this year alone. Besides, Frankfort and family life have grown too big to coexist.

I see deeper divisions between the parties and the chambers. Lines were drawn, us and them defined, fighting words uttered and battles ignited. The aggressive, regressive frenzy began in early January. Instead of easing into a rigorous routine, the Republican-controlled Senate rushed the usual anti-labor and abortion-related mandates to the Democratic-led House, where they were dead on arrival (yawn). But the Senate captured early headlines for an anti-heroin measure sponsored by Chris McDaniel, a candidate for lieutenant governor. His bill mandates harsh penalties — with mandatory minimum sentences — across the board. Experts agree that the prolonged incarceration of drug addicts is a costly, unsustainable travesty. Another conspicuous flaw is in his Good Samaritan provision, which is supposed to save lives by encouraging witnesses of overdoses to call for help without fear of prosecution. The problem is that Senate Bill 5 offers “deferred prosecution” — far less protective than “no charge” immunity.

Fortunately, Senate Bill 192, which improves on provisions of the stalled House and Senate anti-heroin bills, includes a local-option needle-exchange program and expanded access to an overdose antidote. It is in a committee of House and Senate conferees who are expected to negotiate a compromise.

 After four days in January, the legislature recessed until February. With a bipartisan heart, Republican Sen. Joe Bowen of Owensboro delivered a poignant memorial tribute to his longtime next-door neighbor, Wendell Ford. He recalled their great debates, most of which he lost — and endearingly echoed Ford’s nicotine baritone. On another level, the speech was a celebration of neighbors and the magical capacity of nearness to trivialize differences. The tough irony of this tender moment was that Bowen was surrounded by Republicans in a newly segregated chamber. Most senators would now have to walk across the aisle — instead of reach across a desk — to connect with a member of the other party. Too often in Washington, the aisle is too far. In Frankfort, the segregated Senate, perhaps by design, spotlighted a shrinking minority of Democrats. But the separation seemed to facilitate fighting and retard reconciliation. In the wake of the President’s Day blizzard, Senate leadership unilaterally opted to reconvene Thursday and Friday after House leadership opted not to. President Robert Stivers, who has made great strides toward a kinder, gentler Senate since the imperious reign of his predecessor, took to the floor to subdue critics of his decision. But it touched a raw nerve with Democratic Floor Leader Ray Jones, a Pikeville attorney, who decried the decision as partisan and perilous.

As the debate devolved, workers noted the absurdity of braving the elements to see a fight certain to complicate a chaotic session amid a cruel winter.

Then a bomb exploded. Republican Dan Seum of Louisville bitterly accused Jones of being the leading absentee. I’ve known Dan for decades, so it hurt my heart to see him so upset and wrong. Finally, Louisville Democrat Gerald Neal moved to end The Civilized Senate’s most acrimonious chapter, which nobody will forget — despite their best efforts.

If casting House leaders as lackadaisical wasn’t a GOP strategy, it was a recurring theme. Early in January, Stivers blamed them for inaction on last year’s heroin bill — and the deaths it didn’t prevent.

On the last day before the legislature recessed, Jones repetitively moved for roll call votes to revive amendments ruled out of order. He wanted the chamber to consider them. But they remained out of order as the majority ruled and the minority leader brooded.
The deliberate, upper chamber would be wise to rethink its segregation. Maybe have the LRC study the issue and evaluate which arrangement promotes standing united or falling divided. And let’s find out where this brainchild was born. I suspect it was Washington, D. C. — or toxic China.