Larry Dale Keeling: Legislature poised to disappoint again

Herald-leader columnistJanuary 12, 2014 

Larry Dale Keeling

FRANKFORT — Some, perhaps most, maybe even all regular observers of the Kentucky General Assembly long have figured hell would freeze over before they could expect to see an epidemic of intelligent leadership, inspirational statesmanship and intestinal fortitude sweep through the third floor of the state Capitol.

Well, hell froze over in the Bluegrass the other day, about the same time state lawmakers began gathering for the 2014 session. Alas, early indications suggest the vast majority of them inoculated themselves against the aforementioned epidemic before arriving in town.

If the epidemic's three symptoms were spreading rapidly through the House and Senate, some of the better proposals in Gov. Steve Beshear's State of the Commonwealth address (tax reform, increased funding for education, domestic violence protection for dating couples, health initiatives and letting voters decide the casino issue, just to hit the biggies) would have generated more than tepid applause. They didn't.

Admittedly, Beshear's speech ran long, way long. Admittedly, too, he has never cultivated a warm relationship with lawmakers of his own party, much less members of the opposition.

But gutsy leaders and statesmen/stateswomen don't get glassy-eyed and they don't need to be BFFs to work together. They stay alert and respond with passion when they finally hear the call to do what they know is the right thing to do, even if the call comes from someone who hasn't spent a lot of time stroking their egos. Didn't see much of that happening Tuesday evening.

Since hell freezing over apparently will not have the desired transformational effect on the General Assembly's workings, what we can expect to witness in coming days is a case of the multiple ounces of epidemic prevention lawmakers dosed themselves with preventing even a pound of cure for Kentucky's ills. In other words, the same old tune and the same old dance ending in the same old way: with Kentuckians paying the price for the partisan political games their supposed leaders engage in daily while ignoring the state's real needs.

Ironically, Beshear ended his State of the Commonwealth address by urging state lawmakers to avoid the "counter-productive gamesmanship" and the "'take no prisoners' approach to politics" that dominates the national political scene and produces gridlock after gridlock after gridlock in Washington.

Ironically, because the political games had already begun in the House Tuesday afternoon, before Beshear made his plea, as Democratic and Republican members of the ill-fated special committee appointed to investigate the sexual harassment complaints against former Democratic Rep. John Arnold took the floor to point fingers at each other.

Let's be clear on several points. Sexual harassment must never be tolerated. Someone bungled the initial handling of the complaints against Arnold. Whether it was Democratic House leaders or former top officials in the Legislative Research Commission remains to be seen.

The special committee appointed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo to investigate the complaints and recommend the expulsion or censure of Arnold turned into an unmitigated disaster, particularly after Arnold resigned.

And Democrats likely will pay the price for all of this, quite possibly by losing control of the House, unless the attorney representing the complainants in a lawsuit finds evidence implicating Republican legislators while trying to establish a longstanding culture of tolerance of sexual harassment in the General Assembly.

Let's be clear as well that Republicans on the special committee tried to expand its scope far beyond what was called for in the petition Stumbo filed before appointing the committee, which specifically addressed the complaints against Arnold.

I can only presume Republicans' hope in attempting to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into sexual harassment involving legislators and LRC staffers was to turn up more dirt on Democrats. And I personally think House Democrats erred in not giving the Republicans what they wanted, because that would have been the best way to assure some bipartisan dirt was found.

I also understand Republicans will use the Arnold case against Democrats in this year's legislative elections, unless some of their own do get implicated. I have no problem with that. It's fair game, because Democrats so far have been incapable of adequately blunting the issue.

But let's be clear about one other thing. Republicans could have rested on their advantage with this issue and waited until campaign season to exploit it. They didn't. They chose instead to draw the battle lines on the opening day of the session, which has to add a little poison to the atmosphere for the days to come.

Coupled with the widespread, self-administered inoculation against leadership, statesmanship and guts, even a slightly poisoned atmosphere suggests this session will end with the customary whimper in regard to big accomplishments. But thanks to Rep. Leslie Combs' handgun mishap, it at least began with a bang.

Reach Larry Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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