Tom Eblen

Is Capitol the ‘people’s house’ or King Matt’s castle? Here’s why they want you out.

The Kentucky Capitol, that 109-year-old marble monument in Frankfort, is often referred to as The People’s House. But we might as well start calling it King Matt’s Castle.

When the General Assembly began its 2019 session Tuesday, citizens in attendance were greeted with a “statement of emergency” — Gov. Matt Bevin’s latest attempt to silence critics and restrict public participation in the people’s business.

Bevin and legislators saw a lot of public participation last year, when teachers, public employees and retirees jammed the Capitol to protest pension legislation that Republicans passed in a process so shady that a unanimous state Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

Thousands of public school teachers, employees and their supporters from across Kentucky rallied at the state Capitol to protest pension benefit cuts and advocate for more money for education. Tom Eblen

And last summer, Bevin’s administration repeatedly ordered police to arbitrarily allow no more than two Poor People’s Campaign protesters at a time inside the Capitol. Kentucky was the first state to restrict capitol access to the national group led by the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina, who later won a MacArthur “genius” award for his social justice work.

Bevin backed down only after Attorney General Andy Beshear issued an opinion saying he was acting illegally. Beshear, who is now challenging Bevin for re-election, said the administration hadn’t followed proper procedures to restrict protesters.

After being told the entire group would not be granted access to the Capitol, the Kentucky Poor Peoples’ Campaign gathered June 12 in the front lobby as police formed a line to block them. Charles Bertram

This “statement of emergency,” which Bevin signed Jan. 4, appears to be an attempt to make limiting dissent legal. But it doesn’t make it right.

Capitol visitors Tuesday found more security checkpoints and limits on where they could go or stand, such as outside the House of Representatives chamber and in the tunnel lawmakers use to walk between the Capitol and Capitol Annex.

The “statement of emergency” said these restrictions on public access are needed to “protect the health, safety, and welfare of visiting members of the public, as well as staff.” House Speaker David Osborne said emergency medical technicians once last year had trouble getting to an ill legislator because of the crowds.

But that doesn’t explain the need for new House gallery rules for citizens there to watch lawmakers in action. New signs in the gallery say “No disruptive behaviors including clapping or loud speaking.” That’s understandable. But they also say: “no cameras, video cameras, or cell phone cameras.”

House Sign.JPG
Visitors to the state House gallery now see a sign on how they should behave. Jack Brammer

What is the justification for preventing citizens from recording their elected representatives conducting the people’s business? Based on the performance of lawmakers last year, they need all the public monitoring they can get.

While Republican legislative leaders are defending these new restrictions, everyone else sees them for what they are.

“We first learned late yesterday about the governor’s emergency regulation,” Beshear said in a statement Wednesday. “I believe our government should welcome and not restrict the public whose tax dollars pay for the state Capitol. We are reviewing the regulation on concerns with public access to the building and the application of Open Meetings laws.”

Rep. Rocky Adkins, the House Democratic floor leader who also is challenging Bevin for re-election, said: “The ability to keep stairways clear might be acceptable based on how it’s enforced. But this administrative regulation seems to go overboard.”

Others were more blunt:

“Yet again, this governor has schemed to limit participation from the people,” the Kentucky Education Association said in a statement. “These new rules reduce the number of citizens who can take part in the right of assembly in our state Capitol. This is yet another shameful exercise by the governor to silence the educators, taxpayers and citizens of our Commonwealth.”

The Rev. William J. Barber is confronted by state troopers at the doors of the Kentucky Capitol during a demonstration organized by the Kentucky Poor People’s Campaign Monday. The group was barred from the Capitol following an outdoor rally that included a denunciation of the nation’s first work requirements for Medicaid. Bryan Woolston AP Photo

Bevin is notoriously thin-skinned. He verbally attacks judges, journalists, public school teachers and anyone else who criticizes or dares to question what he sees as his own infinite power and wisdom.

After some poets criticized him early in his term, Bevin closed the annual Governor’s Awards in the Arts ceremony to the public and didn’t allow any of the winners to speak. Bevin avoids journalists who might ask him any hard questions, preferring to communicate via video monologues, right-wing talk shows and social media, where he has blocked so many critics that the American Civil Liberties Union sued him.

In his “statement of emergency,” Bevin said “public interest in, and attendance of, the regular business of the Kentucky legislature has steadily increased.” You bet it has. Citizens have realized they must keep close watch on King Matt, the Lords of the Legislature and the lobbyists who fund their campaigns because too often they are up to no good in the People’s House.

Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
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