Lawmakers Assess 2009 Kentucky General Assembly

by Rick Howlett on March 31, 2009

From Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh

Kentucky House and Senate leaders say the 2009 legislative session was one of the most bipartisan and successful sessions on record. But what about rank and file lawmakers? Do they agree?

Senator Kathy Stein spent 12 years in the Kentucky House, including chairing the powerful Judiciary Committee before seeking higher office. The 2009 session was the Lexington Democrat’s first taste of Senate life, and she has mixed emotions. She says it’s been a good learning experience, but there’s one thing she did not enjoy.

“And that is the ambush nature of legislation here in the Senate in particular. You never know what you’re going to vote on until it’s put before you. And I have a very, very big distaste for that,” said Stein.

Northern Kentucky Republican Senator Jack Westwood agrees with legislative leaders. He believes the session exuded bipartisanship and cooperation.                               

“At least for the years I’ve been down here – I’ve been down 12 years – I’ve never seen so much cooperation between the House and Senate and between parties. Seemed like everybody got along,” said Westwood.                                                                       

In the House, Louisville Rep. Jim Wayne says the 2009 session was an improvement over the 2008 session, which ended in what some called a train wreck. That was the year House and Senate clocks mysteriously stopped at midnight and lawmakers kept passing bills of questionable legality. But Wayne says the new majority leaders, who promised involvement and openness, still have some work to do.                                                                                      

“We thought that the Democrats in the House would meet more regularly and review legislation in a more open fashion and that was not done. The leadership kept a lot of their ideas and their bills close to their vests and some bills were not properly debated,” said Wayne.

Assessing the performance of House majority leaders from a minority point of view is Rep. Stan Lee. The Lexington Republican is unimpressed.

“We had projects added to a clean-up bill in the back rooms, in the middle of the night. We were promised with this new leadership team that that would not happen and yet it did. You saw what happened on the floor when that came out,” said Lee.

What happened was several House Democrats openly criticized their new leaders for failing to live up to their transparency promises. But former Democratic governor Julian Carroll, who now serves in the Senate, defends the closed-door, House/Senate negotiations that resulted in tax hikes and a revised state road plan.

“You cannot, in the final analysis, with different individuals, with different attitudes about any particular subject matter, get anything done by setting down in complete open space and have the media present and other individuals present, because no one in those kind of circumstances are going to truly reflect their own personal attitude. They’re going to play games,” said Carroll.

If former House Speaker Jody Richards has an opinion on openness or any other facet of the new leadership team’s performance, he’s not talking. The Bowling Green Democrat, who lost to Speaker Greg Stumbo in this year’s leadership races, says much was accomplished during the session and he’s enjoying spending more time with his constituents.

“No regrets, no regrets. I had 14 wonderful years, so I feel very honored and I’m very humbled by the great experience that I had. So, I’m just enjoying a different role,” said Richards.

Obviously, opinions on the session are widely varied, but if legislative leaders are correct and 2009 truly marks a new era of bipartisanship, that spirit soon could be tested anew. The tax hikes approved last month address only current fiscal year deficits. The second year of the biennial budget begins July 1st. And without dramatic improvement in the economy, lawmakers could be back in Frankfort in June for a special session on the budget.

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