Keeling: While real work awaits, still warm, fuzzy in Frankfort

Herald-leader columnistJanuary 13, 2013 

Sannie Overly

FRANKFORT — This and that as a warm, fuzzy aura fills the state Capitol:

So maybe Gov. Steve Beshear didn't change the outcome on expanded gambling by sending former state Senate President David Williams back home as a judge. Maybe he didn't change the outcome on his proposal to raise the school dropout age. Maybe he didn't get Kentucky any closer to tax reform or pension reform or whatever reform.

But give Beshear credit where credit is due. The Williams appointment sure changed the atmosphere of a General Assembly session. For a week at least.

I'm not ready to predict the kinder, gentler interaction will continue all the way to sine die adjournment in March. After all, this past week was mostly devoted to electing leaders, welcoming newcomers, assigning classroom seats and generally getting accustomed to some new pecking orders. When lawmakers come back in February and get down to the nitty-gritty of real legislating, particularly if the real legislating involves legislative redistricting, the air of cordiality witnessed in recent days could evaporate in a hurry and be replaced by the air of bellicosity we've seen year after year after depressing year.

So far, though, I'm impressed. In addition to being a class act, the decision by the Senate Republican leadership to let Democratic leaders pick committee assignments for their caucus members was an inspired way to make it clear this isn't David Williams' Senate anymore.

And the scene Thursday with leaders of both houses joining Beshear in support of a bonding initiative for state universities made even an old curmudgeon think, at least momentarily, these folks might actually get something useful done without playing brinkmanship games and extracting a pound of each other's political flesh in the process. No way this happens in the first week of the session, if it happens at all, with Williams still running the Senate.

Impressive. Very impressive. But still way early.

Not all was harmonious during the session's opening week. While the two parties seemed to be getting along in the Senate and the majority leaders of the two chambers seemed to be hitting it off rather nicely, House Democrats had a bit of a family squabble in their leadership elections.

Since House Democrats always squabble as much among themselves as they do with the other party or the other chamber, maybe even more, the squabble itself was not earthshaking news. But the outcome made history, with Rep. Sannie Overly ousting Rep. Bob Damron as caucus chair and becoming the first-ever female member of House majority leadership.

As a journalist, I've had a decent relationship with Damron and Overly. So, I'm not going anywhere near making a value judgment on the outcome of this particular squabble. The only value judgment I will make is that 2013 is about a half-century late for House Democrats to elevate one of their party's women lawmakers to a leadership position.

Beshear wants lawmakers to delay legislative redistricting until later in the year, presumably after the General Assembly deals with tax reform, pension reform and maybe even a gambling amendment. The rationale for such a delay is simple. Once redistricting occurs, the incumbents who get hurt by it could bring the air of bellicosity back in a heartbeat and express their anger by voting against tax reform, pension reform and a gambling amendment. As long as it remains on the to-do list, redistricting can be used to promise favorable treatment to those who cast the hard votes.

I'm not sure this strategy will work even if legislative leaders go along with Beshear, because most of the minority members of both houses have been to the redistricting dance before (just last year, in fact) and know the majority parties will protect themselves first no matter what promises are made. A promise may not be enough to make them forget their 2012 experience.

Finally, I want to say a few words on behalf of the "can." Seems like every time we open up a paper or turn on the news these days, some politician or commentator is talking about "kicking the can down the road." Before we kick this cliché to death, let's give the can a well-deserved rest and come up with some new imagery to describe our state and national habit of constantly pushing the tough political decisions into the future.

Suggestions welcomed.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at

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