Legislative rule #1 in election year: Do no harm to your party's chances

herald-leader ColumnistMarch 23, 2014 

Larry Dale Keeling

FRANKFORT — By day 49 of a 60-day General Assembly session, one might logically assume the pace of the legislative process would be quickening. Logically, too, this assumption would grow exponentially if the session's finished work product during the first 48 days consisted of four bills signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear, nine bills awaiting his signature and three more heading his way as soon as they were autographed by both the House speaker and the Senate president.

Lest you think your lawmakers have been particularly unproductive in 2014, let me assure you a legislative stat line of "four, nine and three" with 11 working days to go in a regular session (whether it be a 60-day, even-year session or a 30-day, odd-year one) stopped being unusual a long time ago. Numbers similar to these have become the norm during the era of power being shared by a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic-controlled House.

And in a way, understandably so. Neither side wants to cut a deal or walk away from any possibility of cutting a deal until it has exhausted all opportunities for turning up the political heat on the other side in hopes of getting a better deal for Side A or being better positioned to blame Side B for no deal being cut.

Thus, an extended process of jockeying for position, posturing for the public and holding each other's priority legislation hostage consumes all but the final days of any session.

Only in those final days do both sides acknowledge the ticking clock and think about maybe blowing up the dam holding back legislative productivity.

(The "maybe" was inserted in the last sentence because there have been occasions when the dam remained intact and what got blown up was the credibility of everyone involved. Leadership changes in both chambers make me think that's less likely these days, but you never know.)

While day 49 of a 60-day session doesn't quite qualify as one of those final days, it's at least knocking on the door of legislative "crunch time." Day 49 may not produce the helter-skelter of, say, a customary day 57 or day 58 when anyone who ventures into the halls of the Capitol or Capitol Annex risks being crushed to death by a stampede of legislators, lobbyists, media grunts and assorted onlookers rushing around trying to keep up with the latest events and/or chase down the latest rumors. But day 49 definitely should be characterized by an uptick, however slight, in hustle and bustle.

This past Wednesday was day 49 for the 2014 General Assembly. When I walked into the Capitol Annex late Wednesday morning, I didn't notice an uptick in hustle and bustle. I noticed a few lobbyists and even fewer legislators chatting in the halls. I noticed one committee meeting in progress. But mostly, I noticed the quietness and lack of activity.

Sure, other committees met earlier Wednesday. And other committees met later. But on day 49 of a 60-day session, Capitol Annex committee rooms and hallways should see fairly steady activity from 8 a.m. until the two chambers convene their floor sessions at 2 p.m. That wasn't happening Wednesday, which tells me the only real sense of urgency both sides feel in this election year when control of the House is in serious play is the urge to get this session over with and get out of town with minimal damage to their respective parties' prospects in November.

Lawmakers will pass a budget and a road plan because they know from past experience they can't feel politically safe going home without doing so. And a few bipartisan initiatives could succeed. After that, it becomes a crap shoot. Well, except for such trivial matters as comprehensive tax reform and casino gambling. They crapped out before this session began.

Still, I have faith some truly important stuff will get done. And I'm not referring to the Rand Paul 2016 Presidential/Senatorial Relief Act, which is truly important to just one party and maybe even just one wing of one party.

I'm referring to Senate Concurrent Resolution 44. It passed the Senate 37-0 in February and is in the House consent orders of the day for Tuesday, so it should breeze out of that chamber with similarly overwhelming support.

If it does, we can all take pride in knowing the General Assembly has declared Kentucky to be the "Houseboat Capital of the World."

Nice to know our lawmakers have their priorities in proper perspective.

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

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