From Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh
In January, former Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo was elected Speaker of the Democratic-controlled House, heralding a new era in state politics. Two months later, it looks like the honeymoon for Speaker Stumbo’s leadership skills is over.
Last year, when he was running for Speaker, former House Majority Leader Greg Stumbo promised his colleagues he would find ways to work with the Republican-controlled Senate, and make the legislative process more inclusive, open and transparent. Indeed, since his election in January, Speaker Stumbo has been very effective in working with Senate leaders and the governor. But much of that work has been conducted outside of public view. House and Senate agreements on tax hikes and a revised state road plan were reached during several weeks of closed-door negotiations. Transparency issues reached a boiling point this week when it was revealed that projects for some House members were slipped into a supplemental spending bill without the knowledge of other members.
Rep. Jimmie Lee was among Democrats lashing out on the House floor.
“This is not a clean up bill,” said Lee. “This bill for a very few people, behind closed doors, has been added to this bill. It’s the wrong thing to do and I, in good conscience, cannot vote for this bill.”
Also weighing in was Rep. Robin Webb.
“Where’s the inclusion,” she asked. “I don’t like reading about things that affect my district in the paper. It’s not the way to do business and not why I was sent here, Mr. Speaker.”
And Speaker Stumbo also got a tongue lashing on openness and inclusiveness from former budget chairman Harry Moberly.
“Lets move forward, Mr. Speaker, with the transparency you promised and let’s not engage in that sort of process anymore,” said Moberly.
Watching it all unfold was Republican Rep. Stan Lee, who says the Democrats shouldn’t be surprised. He says, on the transparency issue, he hasn’t seen that much difference between Stumbo’s leadership team and the one it replaced.
“I think if the citizens paid more attention to what went on over here, I think we would have more transparency,” says Lee. “And hopefully something like this will spur some interest and they’ll come over here and demand more transparency.”
But Speaker Stumbo says the criticism is unfair.
“There’s always some of that complaint,” he says. “It’s obviously not a majority of the members who feel that way and we’re going to do everything we can to keep up the policy that we will be as transparent as possible.”
But how can you say you’re trying to be transparent when you negotiated both the road plan and the tax hikes behind closed doors?
“Both of those measures received more, far more, than the required number of votes to pass – nearly 80 votes, I believe, on both measures,” says Stumbo. “So, it’s obvious, that the members are satisfied with the way that business is being conducted.”
And Stumbo says much has been accomplished during the short session, which lasts only 30 days.
“This has been the most harmonious session that we’ve had since I can remember. We’ve accomplished more than since I can remember,” he says. “And I think a fair assessment, when this is all over will be that this is the way the system was designed to work – with cooperation with the other chamber, cooperation and consideration between majority and minority party members. And can we make everybody happy? No. Did we make a large majority of them happy? Yes.”
Governor Beshear says he’s heard some of the criticism of Stumbo’s leadership but thinks it’s unwarranted.
“You know, a year ago, when we had a session, everybody grumbled because nothing got done,” he says. “This year, I guess people are grumbling because we’re getting something done.”
This session may be winding down, but Speaker Stumbo’s leadership skills could soon be tested anew. After reviewing the state’s gloomy revenue figures for February, Stumbo is predicting lawmakers could be back in Frankfort in June to again address budget problems.