It was 24 years ago this month that I got a full-immersion introduction into Kentucky politics.
I was assigned to cover the trial of Bruce Wilkinson, nephew of former Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, in the first of the prosecutions brought under BOPTROT, the federal political corruption probe that ended with the convictions of 15 current or former legislators, including House Speaker Don Blandford, D-Owensboro.
One of many things that struck me during days of testimony about sold votes, bribes, marked money and internal bickering among the malfeasants, was just how cheap Kentucky politicians came. A bribe of $5,000 could fix an administrative decision; it took only $400 to buy a legislator’s vote.
It was interesting information because it was hard to price things like legislative votes when selling them was illegal and the market was all under the table.
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Those were the days. Now, there’s no longer a market in individual votes. Instead, there’s trade in entire legislative bodies. Bought and paid for, they operate like automatons, passing cookie-cutter legislation written in the murky recesses of some out-of-state think tank.
Don’t call the feds, though. It’s all legal. With the assent of the Republican majority in Congress and a very agreeable Supreme Court, the floodgates have been opened to unheard of legal contributions that have left even our humble Kentucky General Assembly awash in money.
Last fall, a group of five out of state men dumped over $200,000 into Kentucky state legislative races in a successful effort to deliver the General Assembly into Republican hands. Their generosity included gifts to Kentucky Republican committees that ultimately gave more than $1.8 million to create the new Republican super majority in the state House of Representatives.
In truth, no one is quite sure how much money flooded into Kentucky races. Hundreds of thousands that don’t have to be accounted for were spent spreading wild lies, half truths and fear mongering about targeted opponents.
A lesson that even the dimmest of the new GOP majority now understands is that if you throw mud hard enough and long enough some of it will stick. That means the mud could be slung their way in future elections if they don’t toe the line when votes are counted in Frankfort.
Think about it: There are 100 members of the House and they run every two years. The only requirements to run are that the individual be 24 years old, a resident of Kentucky for two years and of the district for one. There are a lot of people who fit that bill in every district, and with enough money almost any one of them can become a viable opponent for an independent-minded representative.
Better to toe the line if you enjoy the perks of legislative service — those long days away from the family in Frankfort, the lobbyists’ receptions and other amenities.
And so, as we’ve seen these last several weeks, the “yeas” appear like clockwork whenever they’re needed to bust unions, lower wages, take money from public education for private charter schools — the list can go on and on.
It’s all made me understand what Republicans have meant all these years when they talk about running government like a business.
I always assumed that meant making rational decisions about good governance to assure broad-based, sustainable prosperity.
Everyone knows what produces those desirable outcomes: good schools and infrastructure; healthy workers and safe communities; a judicial system that mediates disputes without violence or corruption; a fair and adequate taxing system.
That stuff is hard and, in a way, kind of boring, as good government always is. To get there you need a long view, thoughtful decisions based on sound, unbiased research and constant reassessment to be sure you’re getting where you want to go. It is a lot like running a business.
But, as the debate over charter schools demonstrated, the GOP isn’t in to all that. Opponents cited decades of data showing charters are fool’s gold, sucking money out of public school budgets without improving educational outcomes. But, one after another, lawmakers ignored this evidence, resorting instead to vague emotional anecdotes to justify their pro-charter votes.
That’s no way to run a business.
But, look at it another way. Say the people — whoever they are — buying our state legislatures now don’t really care about all that good-government stuff.
Whether they are idealogues who just hate government, or rapacious outsiders who hope to profit from legislative decisions — for-profit charter school operators, business owners who want to pay lower wages, offer fewer worker protections, people who just want lower taxes — their concern isn’t making Kentucky better. They just want to push their own agenda.
In that regard, they are indeed businesslike.
Instead of the sloppy old days when dozens of people had to slip bills into errant hands, driving around in limousines with bags full of cash or arranging clandestine meetings behind popular watering holes, our modern-day influence peddlers have developed a very efficient system.
Stay at home in Florida, write a check and — voila — you’ve got a piece of a legislative body.
For candidates, the efficiencies are equally evident. No more yammering on the phone all day trying to wrangle money out of constituents, attending endless fund-raising events and all the required glad-handing. No worries about marked money staining your clothes. Just follow instructions and the money flows!
Believe me, I have no nostalgia for the old days. Good ol’ white Democratic boys pocketing cash have no more appeal for me than the Republican guys we have now.
I do, though, feel a twinge of regret that, in this drive for efficiency, we’ve outsourced our government. Kind of makes a taxpayer sad.
Editorial writer Jacalyn Carfagno can also be reached at 231-1652.