Remember learning ‘how a bill becomes law’? Well, forget it in the Kentucky legislature.

by Jamie Lucke, Kentucky Lantern

A million thanks to the League of Women Voters of Kentucky for running the numbers on the opaque and, oh, so arrogant way the General Assembly conducts what we still quaintly call the “people’s business.”

“None of the people’s business” is more like it, considering how frequently the legislature chooses to shut out the public.

The League’s study, appropriately entitled “How Can They Do That?,” charts the increasing frequency of legislative maneuvers that hide and short-circuit the lawmaking process. Remember what you learned about “how a bill becomes law”? Well, forget it for a sizable portion of bills and laws in Kentucky. As a result, citizens find it almost impossible to participate in the process.

The situation is not unlike an abusive relationship. One partner dreads but can never predict what the other will do. 

There’s even gaslighting. “It’s always been that way” is a common defense for this trampling of long-established constitutional procedure. The League demolished that excuse. Consider: In 1998, fewer than 5% of bills that became law in Kentucky were passed using four surreptitious methods explained in the League’s report. Fast forward to 2022 and 32% of enacted House bills and 24% of enacted Senate bills were fast-tracked in ways that shut out the public. 

None of that is to say the legislature has ever been free of shenanigans, especially in a session’s waning hours when unsavory surprises tend to appear in the budget or emerge from closed conference committees. (My standout memory is from the closing hours in 2000 when without notice lawmakers plumped up their pensions. The state Supreme Court overturned the action after its Republican sponsor, Sen. Albert Robinson of London, admitted his goal was to sneak the “unintelligible” provision, as the Supreme Court called it, into law without being noticed.)

Back then lawmakers at least tried to hide their shenanigans. Now they brazenly keep concerned citizens and groups in the dark until they’re ready to slip controversial proposals into law, allowing no opportunity for public input or time for comment. Sadly, that opaque way of doing business is becoming normalized. Routine even.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of what would induce the supermajority to change.

Voters are the obvious answer.

But incumbent lawmakers have so many advantages. They’ve set the candidate filing deadline ridiculously early — Jan. 5 — to insulate themselves from challenges. And they have drawn districts that favor the incumbent and the party in power.

There’s also the phenomenon of voters’ liking their lawmaker even if they disapprove of the body as a whole. 

A rebellion within the supermajority is more likely. Rank and file Republican lawmakers are kept almost as much in the dark as the public. In the 1980s Kentucky lawmakers broke free from dominance by the governor. That same kind of small “D” democratic impulse could compel Republican lawmakers to seek more transparency from their leaders.

But I don’t see that happening, either.

Most Republicans seem happy to follow their leaders who seem happy to follow national GOP agenda-setters such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity (AFP).

Taking cues from outside agenda-setters hasn’t exactly boosted the Republican brand in Kentucky this year.

The American Principles Project pushed an anti-transgender agenda in legislatures around the country, including ours. And its PAC aired a series of intelligence-insulting ads against Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear aimed at ginning up fear and contempt toward the small minority of transgender kids, their parents and physicians.

I’ve seen several Republicans say the anti-trans messaging, which also came from the Republican Party of Kentucky, did nothing to help, and might have hurt, Republican gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron.

The anti-trans legislation also is a prime example of high-handed tactics by legislative leadership.

After an unexpected outbreak of human decency among Republicans in the Senate threatened to derail restrictions on transgender kids’ medical care, leadership responded the next day by combining two pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation into one jumbo bill and jetting it through both chambers in a matter of hours. Everyone, including lawmakers, was taken by surprise and caught flat-footed.

Some Republicans insisted they were protecting kids from decisions they would later regret. But, whether they’re enacting laws to protect or pick on Kentuckians, lawmakers should have the guts to look them in the eye while they’re doing it. That’s not too much to ask.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter.