As we lay dying: A look back at a (mostly) worthless legislative session

Apr 22, 2008 at 7:23 pm

Imagine grown-ups running through the state Capitol, lobbing freeze-dried cow pies at one another, and you’ll begin to comprehend the magnitude of the travesty that was the 2008 regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly.

Remind yourself that all the childish chicanery transpired at taxpayer expense (about $60,000 a day) and that the legislature adjourned without modernizing the state’s budget-busting pension system, and you might stop laughing long enough to get livid. The consensus is that it was the least productive session in modern times.

The most divisive bill, as usual, was a measure to deny health insurance benefits to (unmarried) domestic partners of employees of public agencies, including state universities. And debate on the measure inspired the best spanking of the session. When sponsor Sen. Vernie McGaha, R-Russell Springs, presented his Senate Bill 91 to the House Health and Welfare Committee, Rep. David Watkins, D-Henderson, a family physician, exploded.

“I think some people do this so that they can get funds for their organization,” Watkins told MaGaha and Dave Edmunds of Kentucky’s Family Foundation. “Sen. McGaha, don’t you see the negativity that you cause and the division that you cause in our state? You’re supposed to be up here representing people to help people, not to hurt us. You know this is a divisive issue. Surely you’re intelligent enough to know that and to realize that this creates division in the Senate and division in your House of Representatives.”

McGaha, who looked as though he wanted to say, “Shut up, already; I’m just trying to get into Heaven,” instead explained that he felt very deeply about the issue. He later vowed to resurrect the failed bill next session, and called Watkins a disgrace.

The legislature finally enacted an anti-bullying bill — but not without a jihad. When the Senate unveiled its version of the measure, Democratic senators balked at the deletion of the so-called Golden Rule provision.

“The Golden Rule isn’t such a bad idea,” said Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville. “It’s supported quite frequently by the Democratic Party because it has no Biblical roots; it comes from ancient Greek philosophy. … Obviously it’s OK to talk about Greek gods but not the Almighty God.”

If the past is prologue, those conflicts were predictable. But no one foresaw the contretemps that would consume Senate Bill 1, a measure to kill CATS, the statewide Commonwealth Accountability
Testing System.

Most of the education establishment viewed the measure as another retreat from the lofty standards of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act. In the most ill-advised, impolitic news conference of the session, Gov. Steve Beshear decried the initiative and threatened to veto it. But the measure never had a chance of passing the House, so the announcement struck many as another eye-poking incident between Beshear and Williams, the bill’s sponsor.

Williams poked back from his perch on the Senate floor as he assailed Beshear for his non-involvement in any other major policy issue except for expanded gaming. The more significant damage, however, was between Williams and House Budget Committee Chair Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, a steadfast critic of SB 1.

Later in the session, Moberly, who works for Eastern Kentucky University, fumed when he saw the Senate version of the ethics bill, which appeared to make it impossible for him to sustain both jobs without committing a felony.

Thus it was no surprise, during tense budget negotiations, to see Williams and Moberly tell each other to calm down and take a deep breath.  Williams, who refers to Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-Louisville, and Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, D-Lexington, as “the shrill chorus,” accused Moberly of making “disparaging, hateful comments.” So Moberly called Williams’ position irrelevant. Williams replied, in the most ominous statement of the session, “We’ll see what’s irrelevant when the final budget comes out.”

When it did, Moberly conceded defeat, calling it “a diabolical deal with the devil” and awarding “King David” emperor status. Although Williams repeatedly said he wanted the governor to succeed, Beshear’s three key initiatives — expanded gaming, pension modernization and ethics reform — failed.

But the session wasn’t a total loss. Thanks to Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, children in the nation’s most toothless state will be required to have a dental exam before they enroll in kindergarten. And if a measure sponsored by Sen. Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, succeeds in real life, Kentucky will start rehabilitating instead of incarcerating certain drug offenders.

Finally, pet owners no longer will be able to bury their departed dumplings in public cemeteries without written consent. That measure was inspired by an incident in Western Kentucky, where survivors were mortified to see that their loved one’s final resting place was near a canine named Shithead.

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