Fed up with inefficiencies and inequalities in the state legislative system, a coalition of state House Democrats will propose reforms aimed at enforcing deadlines and spreading out power that is typically concentrated in the hands of a few leaders.
Chief among the proposals, which will be filed in a draft bill as early as Thursday, is a series of rule changes that would effectively bar House leaders from directly participating in state budget negotiations.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
It also would add punishment for anyone who fiddles with the clock to extend the legislature's deadlines, make it more difficult to remove a lawmaker from a committee, and save time by limiting lawmaker's introduction of guests to a half-hour, according to a summary of the bill provided to the Herald-Leader.
A group of Democratic legislators — including Reps. John Tilley of Hopkinsville, Carl Rollins II of Midway and Jim Wayne of Louisville — have been debating and fashioning the rule changes for months.
This comes after a tumultuous 2008 legislative session that was roundly criticized by officials inside and out of the General Assembly. During the 60-day session, the five-man House Democratic leadership team openly bickered with one another, House Speaker Jody Richards booted a lawmaker off of a committee after she didn't vote the way he wanted on a casino bill and the General Assembly adjourned well after the constitutional deadline of midnight on April 15th without passing several key measures.
"A lot of people are going to see this as a reaction to the last night of the session, but this has been in the works for a lot longer than that," said Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, who is part of a group that drafted the reforms.
"This calls for conducting business in a more businesslike way. I think it also brings more people in the House into discussions and creates a more member-led caucus than a leadership-led caucus," she said.
Serving as a backdrop to the suggested rule change are the hotly contested races for House leadership posts, especially the showdown for Speaker of the House between Richards and former Democratic House floor leader Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg.
Richards and Stumbo said Wednesday night that they don't think the proposed changes will affect their race.
"I certainly didn't sanction that group, and I doubt Jody Richards did," Stumbo said.
Both men said the proposals will have to be taken up by all 65 House Democrats in a caucus retreat in mid-January, well after the races for speaker and other leadership posts are decided Jan. 6.
"These members are all good friends who are attempting to improve the process," Richards said. "The caucus will discuss each one of these and will select the ones they want to implement. Certainly, we may even change some details."
Richards declined to say which proposals he liked or would like to change.
Synchronizing the General Assembly's clock to an atomic clock, and punishing those who tinker with it to extend the General Assembly's midnight deadline on its last day.
Limiting the time for singers, musicians and acknowledging visitors to 30 minutes each day. That portion often lasts an hour or more.
Permitting the panel that sets committee assignments to remove a lawmaker from a committee only with the majority vote of the entire panel — not just a majority of those who happen to be present.
Removing House leaders from the conference committee on the budget. Under the proposal, leaders couldn't serve on the House budget committee, and only committee members and bill sponsors would be participants in conference negotiations with the Senate.
Rep. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, who also worked with the group on the reforms, said she has some concern with that provision because it could remove the chamber's most skilled debaters from negotiations with the Senate.
"I think you always should have your best team in place," she said.
Webb, a high-ranking member on the House budget committee, said House leaders often defer to her and other rank-and-file members of the budget panel throughout the negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate.
An early draft of the rule changes also included a provision that would create term limits for House leadership posts. That was taken out of the bill that will be pre-filed, said Wayne, of Louisville.
Still, Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Owensboro, said that idea might be considered.
"I, personally, would not be opposed to term limits for House leaders," said Thompson, one of several candidates for the Democratic whip post. "From time to time it's good to have a change in leadership."