Divided we fall

Jan 8, 2008 at 8:14 pm

This week, as state legislators returned to Frankfort to convene the Kentucky General Assembly’s 60-day session, they did so amid a climate of fiscal dread and political fear. Speaking last month as the reality of the crisis began to reveal itself, state budget director Mary Lassiter said, “This is the toughest budget challenge I’ve ever seen in my 24 years” in state government.

With such a staggering shortfall, vital interests — education, state pension systems, healthcare, social services and more — will compete for a share of the strained budget. To the mix, add the usual divisive social issues — God, guns, gays, gynecology and gambling during an election year — and we may be sailing headlong toward a perfect storm of conflict, if not rancor. With a new Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled Senate, the potential for gridlock appears formidable.
But must we go there again?

Maybe not, if key players reach deep within themselves and exhaust every effort to put leadership above politics. Indeed, it is a new day in Frankfort, and so there is hope that things might change. Clearly, the status quo will no longer suffice; business as usual is risky, because the stakes are too high. Cooperative leadership in the capital is the only way to rescue a runaway train racing toward financial Armageddon.
That all seems clear to casual observers. And yet, there is no guarantee the participants will rise to meet the demands of difficult times. A look at the past reveals what we’re up against. A look into the future shows how things might improve.

The relationship between two principal players will be paramount. Both Gov. Steve Beshear, 63, and Senate President David Williams, 54, are at a unique moment in history that parallels the state motto: “United we stand; divided we fall.” If either wants to go down in history as a savior, they’ll need to get along at this critical juncture, and they know it.

Beshear, in his inaugural address, said: “We have a responsibility to work together, and I have a responsibility to lead. I take that responsibility very seriously because our prosperity is at stake.”

Political guru Al Cross notes that courtesy between Beshear and Williams will be crucial to the success of the session. “Theirs will be the most important relationship in Frankfort for the next few months,” Cross wrote in The Courier-Journal, “as Beshear drafts a budget, tries to get a casino measure on the ballot over Williams’ opposition, and deals with political questions such as the gubernatorial role in races for the state Senate.”

Williams is concerned about the governor’s role in state races because it could jeopardize the GOP’s narrow majority — and his presidency. Williams has made it clear, Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Larry Dale Keeling notes, that the governor will have added difficulty advancing his agenda if he is simultaneously recruiting people to run against Republican senators.

And, Keeling adds, “Williams doesn’t make idle threats.” The columnist believes Beshear should “leave candidate recruitment to the Democratic caucuses in the respective houses” and to the Kentucky Democratic Party.

But Rep. Reginald Meeks (D-Louisville) said a non-recruitment pledge would be meaningless, because “there are many ways to work against a political opponent.”

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover (R-Jamestown) said: “I expect Gov. Beshear to be involved politically on behalf of his party, and to think he will refrain from such activity is unrealistic. However, I would caution Gov. Beshear to weigh the degree of his involvement politically against what he hopes to achieve” legislatively.

By all accounts, Williams and Beshear, a former lobbyist, have enjoyed a cordial relationship through the years. Beshear might help preserve it by limiting his involvement in legislative races — at least while bipartisanship reigns.

It was Beshear, after all, who said after he was sworn in Dec. 11, “We can accomplish much over the next four years, but … only if we put the interests of Kentuckians ahead of the interests of political parties …”

For his part, Williams could reciprocate by letting the casinos initiative roll. The electorate clearly wants to vote on a constitutional amendment to enable expanded gaming, with three independent surveys last fall putting that figure somewhere around 80 percent. Lawmakers whose districts lie cross-river from casinos want to capture some of those exported proceeds, while having an amendment on the ballot could help the GOP mobilize conservative voters in November. If a referendum passed with Williams’ blessing, he and Beshear would score a bipartisan triumph and Kentucky would expand its budget. Senate leaders would be wise not to obstruct — and squander precious political capital against — this idea whose time has come.
Likewise, it’s time to embrace a higher standard of decorum in discourse.

Every session, lawmakers navigate the ship of state over the waterfalls of polarizing social issues — with uniformly Titanic results. Such debates inevitably elicit the worst from the players and hurt feelings and damage relationships. Laws may be enacted, but minds and behaviors remain largely unchanged while more consequential public-policy issues languish.

Veteran statehouse reporter Tony McVeigh of Kentucky Public Radio, recently said on KET’s  “Comment on Kentucky” that the proposed ban on domestic partner health benefits at public universities “is a hot-button issue that could gum up the works, so to speak, for the session.”

That’s too bad, noted Linda Blackford of The Lexington Herald-Leader, “because from the university perspective, this is a no-brainer.  If you were on the East Coast, no one would be talking about this … It’s totally par for the course for major universities to offer this — and major corporations do as well.”

During a 2004 debate on same-sex marriage, Rep. Mary Lou Marzian (D-Louisville) called House colleagues “a bunch of hypocrites” who publicly championed the sanctity of marriage even though “half of you are divorced.” She also recalled a 1998 probe that linked lawmakers with prostitutes. Marzian, who represents the Highlands, has a simple solution for leaders to forestall the bitterness: “Relegate these divisive issues to committees (where) they will never see the light of day and then have the backbone to keep them there.”
She adds: “National polls are consistently showing that the public is fed up with divisive issues (gays and abortion) and want their elected officials to focus on true public policy.”

It’s unclear whether the pre-filed bill will be bottled up. Rep. Kathy Stein (D-Lexington), the progressive chair of the House Judiciary Committee, would have that authority if it is assigned to her panel. Oddly, it was two Democrats — Reps. Richard Henderson of Jeffersonville and Ancel Smith of Leburn — who proposed the benefits ban, CNHI News Service columnist Ronnie Ellis noted on “Comment,” “because they don’t want to face it this fall” as a campaign issue.

In campaigns and in the statehouse, Kentuckians covet the high drama of adversarial rhetoric. It’s a vivid tradition that makes our Capitol home of the Greatest Political Show on Earth. But harsh or threatening words can serve to complicate (if not paralyze) the process.

Case in point:  On March 7, Williams said that until the House passed the Senate’s pension fix, “I see very little else happening … as far as expending dollars.”

That stance had repercussions that tainted relations for the rest of the session. The next day, House Speaker Jody Richards (D-Bowling Green) prompted cheers when he inveighed, “We’re not going to be dictated to!”

Williams took to the Senate floor and recreated a meeting with Richards, mockingly waving his arms and portraying the speaker as a befuddled ringmaster of willful committee chairs. The chamber erupted in laughter. It was one of the funnier — and more toxic — moments in recent legislative history.
The Senate’s pension plan failed for lack of House action.

Conversely, lack of Senate action on a House plan may be killing a bill that would save lives. A child booster seat measure sponsored by Stein repeatedly stalls in the Senate, because, many believe, of the feud between her and Williams. Theirs is perhaps the most notorious enmity of the General Assembly. If they could manage to declare a truce and perhaps establish a framework for better relations, they would set an impressive example. It would be nice to see them square dancing at a Renfro Valley hoedown.

With a few goodwill gestures, the tango of partisan rancor could be transformed into a less dirty dance. For example, sponsors could withdraw pre-filed bills to (1) preclude pretrial (gubernatorial) pardons and (2) impose new restrictions and reporting requirements for legal defense trusts. Both can be perceived as an antagonistic slap at the previous administration. And we’ll know things aren’t going well if the session devolves into debates about the hiring scandal and its aftermath.

The governor’s ethics package, too, threatens to freshen wounds. If these battles must be had now, let civil tongues prevail. Let the lacerations of the past campaign scab and heal completely — without undue inflammation.

Inflammatory rhetoric and its repercussions can chill a session and stifle debate. A year ago, the legislature began with a contentious bang. While advocating a minimum-wage increase, Sen. Ernesto Scorsone (D-Lexington) cited the $619,000 modernization of Senate Republican offices, including a $17,400 plasma TV.

“If, as a legislature, we can authorize spending thousands and thousands of dollars to refurbish leadership offices, suites, with fancy carpeting and paneling and plasma TVs,” Scorsone said, “surely we can do something for the current generation of working people who need some help.”

That didn’t go over well. Republican leaders summarily aborted Scorsone’s longstanding membership on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Scorsone blamed Williams and cast the move as petty retaliation. A C-J editorial termed the episode a “pointless partisan provocation” but lamented the loss of Scorsone’s “valuable experience and insight” on the panel. “Since Mr. Williams is completely in the right about the big-screen TV and the rest of the renovation,” the newspaper wrote, “he could have ignored the gratuitous insult.”

Later in the session, a surreal event further underscored the peril of partisan dissent. Senate Bill 201, which would require HIV/AIDS testing of inmates, appeared to be on a smooth ride to passage when it hit an astonishing pothole. The measure had cleared the judiciary committee without opposition, and on Feb. 27 it reached the Senate floor, where sponsor Dan Seum (R-Louisville) explained it.

Sen. Tim Shaughnessy (D-Louisville) said he would vote for the bill but criticized Senate GOP leaders for selectively enforcing Section 47 of the Kentucky Constitution, which stipulates, “Bills to raise revenue must originate in the House of Representatives.”

President Williams stunned the chamber when he rose to formalize Shaughnessy’s complaint and persuaded the chair to rule his fellow Republican’s bill out of order. Seum, incredulous, was left to explain the vexation to the African-American pastors who pushed the measure — and witnessed its sudden demise from the Senate gallery.

But it’s not just Republican leaders who’ve been accused of over-regulating the marketplace of ideas. In November, Chairman Jim Gooch (D-Providence) stacked an interim joint committee hearing — against global warming.

That opened the floodgates of criticism. In a Nov. 21 column titled, “The dumb leading the dumb toward the apocalypse,” LEO’s Stephen George referred to the hearing as “the Gooch Circus of Flaming Bullshit.”

That was just the tip of the collective outcry. Gooch was verbally disemboweled in a live interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and Al Cross told a KET audience, “The coal industry is not being done any favors when you have such a stupid hearing that was held by Jim Gooch this week. Jim Gooch is not a stupid man, but he makes Kentucky look stupid when he does things like that.”

Things like that undermine the integrity of the truth-seeking process. Public servants work best when the citizenry believes they are honest and ethical. Consequently, both major parties should refuse to support the candidacies of convicted felons. The adoption of such a policy might hobble Democrat Carroll Hubbard, who has filed to challenge incumbent Sen. Ken Winters (R-Murray) in the 1st senatorial district after losing a race to Bob Leeper (I-Paducah) in the 2nd district. We’ll see whether Hubbard recycles his slogan, “God has forgiven me, and I hope you will too.”

Restoring trust was the keystone of Beshear’s campaign and inauguration. Understandably, the press and the public will hold him to a high standard. “I expect to earn your trust,“ he said, “not to simply be given it.”
Already, however, Beshear has squandered some trust via an issue involving his finance secretary, former State Treasurer Jonathan Miller.

Miller, a published political ethicist, improperly raised the salary of Brooke Parker, whom he hired in 2000 at $21,000. Last year, she was paid $78,981 as Miller’s deputy. That 380-percent salary increase, coupled with a trip to Las Vegas, fueled rumors of an affair, which Miller dismissed. He told WHAS-TV’s Mark Hebert, “Those people who are aware of the close friendship that Brooke and my wife Lisa have find this laughable.”
Others are troubled. As the story climaxed and calls for investigations were rebuffed, Parker was appointed director of intergovernmental affairs at the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.

This is no time for pols to appear insensitive to ethics or public relations. If scandal-weary citizens perceive the mess in Frankfort as raging unabated, they’ll turn on Beshear like rabid dogs, and his mandate will evaporate.

Rep. Hoover would like “Gov. Beshear and his administration to take the time to sit down with legislators, on a one-to-one basis, find out their concerns and what they can do for their respective districts.”
Rep. Meeks “would encourage the new governor, especially in the first year of his administration, to hold regional town hall meetings along with his cabinet and all legislators serving the area.”

And because it’s easier to get a bill killed than enacted, the legislature might take pains to include key stakeholders in major initiatives early and often — to maximize their prospects for passage. Enlightened lawmakers use such opportunities to show respect for interested parties, defuse dissent and, ideally, strike a compromise while there’s time. Education and pension propositions failed in 2007 amid complaints of railroading.

Regular meetings between Beshear, Williams and Richards might also facilitate good public policy, understanding and cooperation. When people see one another routinely, they tend to relate and communicate more effectively than by intemperate memos and snide swipes at press briefings.

The landscape has transformed radically in the 20 years since Beshear vacated public office. Politics have been redefined by unprecedented scrutiny and transparency — and negativity — as increasingly fearful constituents seek to manage the dizzying spin of change.

The culture is coarser, more hostile and less forgiving. For many, political discourse is an outlet for aggression.

Leaders must adapt to the new world disorder. Nothing less than their best behavior will mitigate rising frustrations and meet the challenges of the future.

Will the overabundance of testosterone that Sen. Julie Denton (R-Louisville) bemoans be replaced by statesmanship? Will Williams decide he’d rather be beloved than feared and transform from King David into Henry Clay?

Mercifully, as leaders mature, they focus on shaping their legacies.

This session offers them the opportunity to be remembered as leaders who evolved and cooperated and negotiated and compromised — who grew and changed to manage tough times.

Hoover, whose civility and institutional reverence stems partly from both his parents’ service in the House, laments the “political posturing” and “power struggles” between the executive and legislative branches in recent years. “Nothing can be achieved without total respect for the other,” he said, urging “all parties involved to leave the political gamesmanship and the ‘gotcha’ politics of today’s society at the doorstep.”  

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