Ky. legislature stalling self-reform

Political scandals have predictable life cycles.

Reactions morph from denial to attempts to shift blame, to acceptance combined with urgent calls for action and reform.

The scandal that engulfed Kentucky's Legislative Research Commission in the fall of 2013 seems now to have settled into a stage that can be called "ignore, suppress, delay and hope everyone will lose interest."

As an approach to managing a public-relations problem that may make sense.

As a strategy for assuring the General Assembly will have the tools it needs to address Kentucky's many pressing problems, it's a disgrace.

In September 2013 longtime director Robert Sherman resigned in the wake of allegations he hadn't responded appropriately to staff complaints of sexual harassment at the hands of a legislator. With Sherman gone on short notice, legislative leaders expressed an urgent need to fill the leadership vacuum at the LRC.

There were signs the problems went deeper than one scandal or one person. For example, despite its professional role, the LRC apparently has no system for evaluating, promoting or discipling employees.

By early October 2013 the legislative commission that oversees the professional staff — co-chaired by Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg — had appointed an interim director, Marcia Seiler. The commission also hired the National Conference of State Legislatures to help find a permanent replacement — a process Stivers estimated could take six to eight months — and to conduct a performance audit of the office.

Stumbo wanted it to be "a general audit of everything," at the LRC. "We're going to change things going forward and make sure that this commission functions in a proper manner and in a solid manner."

And then legislative leaders apparently moved into the "ignore, suppress, delay" stage with a vengeance.

Now, 15 months later, Seiler is still acting director and there's no indication of a search for a permanent replacement, or that much of anything has changed in the management of the LRC.

The NCSL delivered its performance audit in April 2014 but very few know what it says. Leadership has denied requests by both the media and Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, to release the report, saying it's an unfinished draft.

Riner isn't optimistic. "There's very little appetite to deal with this," he said.

Why does this matter?

Because the LRC provides the citizen-legislators with a permanent, non-partisan professional staff that can analyze budgets, research and draft quality legislation. The modern LRC was created in the 1970s by a General Assembly tired of bowing to an all-powerful governor. With a professional staff, the part-time legislators could operate as an equal branch of government, providing an important check on executive power.

The current state of affairs has taken a toll on that professional staff. "We've lost a lot of good people," Riner said. Demoralized by the inaction, "people have retired early that were very, very talented."

This has to stop.

Voters and members of their caucuses should pressure Stivers and Stumbo to release the report and with it a plan to hire a permanent director and reform the LRC.

Kentucky government can't afford to lose more good people.