FRANKFORT — With apologies to Charles Dickens.
It was the best of weeks, it was the worst of weeks, it was the age of statesmanship, it was the age of brinkmanship, it was the epoch of policy, it was the epoch of politics, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness (some of Boz's words need no changing here), it was the spring of compromise, it was the winter of confrontation, we had accomplishment before us, we had gridlock before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way (see parenthetical comment above).
Confession time for the benefit of one or two readers who haven't noticed: When it comes to politics, I'm prone to pessimism. After all, if I expect the worst, I can never be disappointed.
Where Kentucky politics is concerned, my pessimism level peaks during the collision of egos and agendas that occurs under the Capitol dome whenever the General Assembly convenes. After the wreckage from a legislative session has been cleared and both the victims and the victimizers have gone home, it too often is difficult to tell whether Kentuckians were helped more than they were harmed. And rarely can you point to a piece of legislation that serves the public interest in such a significant way its passage alone can make a session a success.
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Last week began with such a rarity, final passage of House Bill 463, a major rewrite of the state's penal code and drug laws representing a shift from a "tough on crime" philosophy to a "smart on crime" approach stressing rehabilitation and re-entry into society for lesser offenders while still assuring hardened criminals do hard time. A bottom-line need to address the state's soaring corrections costs provided a strong argument for this change.
Still, the ease with which HB 463 sailed through both legislative chambers — minimal debate, near-unanimous support — was a tribute to six months of work by a task force led by Republican Sen. Tom Jensen and Democratic Rep. John Tilley, who chair the Judiciary committees in their respective chambers. While the entire task force deserves credit, HB 463 became an example of the legislative process at its best because of the synergy between Tilley and Jensen. They deserve all the praise heaped on them last week — and more.
Although passage of HB 463 lifted the pall of pessimism from my soul, the high proved to be depressingly brief. Soon, the Capitol returned to brinkmanship, politics, Darkness, confrontation, gridlock and the path leading the other way from heaven. The best of weeks morphed into the worst of weeks, and the closing days of yet another General Assembly session seemed destined to be dominated by the search for a ruler suitable for settling some manhood issues.
Blame this one on gubernatorial politics. Incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear wants to stick around a few more years. Senate President David Williams wants to send Beshear back to private life. So, the clash over filling a gap in the Medicaid budget that finally surfaced last week was inevitable from the outset of the session.
It might seem counterintuitive for Williams to assume ownership of the pain inflicted by the across-the-board budget cuts he's proposing, particularly since the pain will start being felt as the gubernatorial race heads into the fall campaign. But what was his alternative?
Go along with Beshear's "managed care" approach to filling the budget void? What kind of argument for change would that make? And even if Williams went along solely in the hope Beshear's plan failed miserably, he would be on record as voting for the miserable failure of a plan.
Besides, in the Tea Party era of Republican politics, Williams needs some budget-cutting creds to offset past votes for tax increases and huge bond issues to finance earmarked projects.
So, here we are again, looking for a ruler. Because we are, the carcasses of bills still awaiting action soon will pile high around the Capitol, making it the best of times for local buzzards — whose numbers seem to increase whenever lawmakers come to town.