It would be nice if bills were introduced in Frankfort because their sponsors have identified problems that need addressing. Instead, introducing a bill can be a way of just seeming to do something. Campaign politics do not end when a session starts, and even symbolic bills can garner a legislator free media.
But bills that are not really intended to pass clog the process, making it harder for legislators to pass effective legislation. Moreover, they often increase the level of partisan animosity and help to spread skewed or inaccurate information in the press.
Take Senate Bill 10, the so-called "21st Century Bill of Rights." It was introduced at the beginning of the last session and forced through the Senate without serious hearings or publicly available cost/benefit analyses. It was a hodge-podge of ideas thrown together to please the sponsors' various constituencies —a way of seeming to be responsive.
But the sponsors knew full well their bill had no chance of being approved by both houses, signed by the Governor and passed by a constitutional referendum. It had all the signs of a bill designed as political PR.
Consider the inflammatory and partisan way in which SB 10 starts out. Each of the first five clauses is an attack on President Obama. The first one reads: "WHEREAS, the President of the United States has advanced significant legislative proposals with little or no transparency and accountability to the citizens of the Commonwealth or of other states."
Four similar claims follow. That just is not the way one starts a bill that has a serious legislative purpose or is designed to enlist the support of serious legislators from both parties.
For a second example, take House Bill 421, entitled "An Act Relating to Intrastate Coal Use." HB 421 seeks to remove coal that is mined in Kentucky for use in Kentucky from the purview of the federal Clean Water Act on the grounds that no interstate commerce is involved, hence, the Environmental Protection Agency should not have jurisdiction. One obvious fallacy in this reasoning is that the polluting effects of mining and burning coal in Kentucky, wherever it is from, flow beyond the state's borders.
If this bill had become law, the Environmental Protection Agency would have been legally bound to "dedelegate" the authority of the Commonwealth of Kentucky to implement and enforce the Clean Water Act provisions that apply to coal mining in Kentucky.
In other words, if this bill had passed, the EPA would have ended up directly managing the permitting, inspection and enforcement of the Clean Water Act regarding mining pollution in Kentucky.
The result, almost certainly, would have been more rigorous enforcement of the Clean Water Act and cleaner water in the regions of the state where coal is mined and burned. That would be a great outcome, but it is hardly what the bill's sponsors had in mind.
However, HB 421's sponsors had not expected their piece of grandstanding legislation to pass, and it didn't come close.
This coming session, Kentucky's legislators will have to deal with the biannual budget and the need to safeguard the quality of life of all Kentuckians in the face of numerous challenges. The citizens of this state cannot afford to have the arteries of the legislature clogged with the fat of grandstanding bills which are not meant to pass. Let's have an end to merely symbolic proposals and save our words and minds for the work that really needs to be done.
Rick Clewett of Lexington is a longtime advocate for clean water and good government.