'It ain't till it's over' in Frankfort

Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, "It ain't over till it's over." In Frankfort, there's a similar observation about legislation presumed incapable of passage. Nothing is dead so long as the legislature is in session.

Kentucky lawmakers return to Frankfort on Thursday, March 28, to consider overriding any vetoes by Gov. Matt Bevin -- and perhaps to pass some last minute legislation.

It's the latter which should worry their constituents. Lawmakers are not above trying to put something over on the folks they ostensibly represent. We saw that last year with the infamous "sewer bill," a last-minute, unannounced attempt by the Republican majority to change the Teachers' Retirement System. The bill was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, not because of the substance of the bill but because of the underhanded way in which it was enacted.

There are some questionable -- and some bad -- bills which could still pass on the 28th, the final day of the 2019 General Assembly, despite some legislative leaders' protestations the bills are dead for this session.

Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Senate President Robert Stivers but fashioned to please Bevin, would allow lawsuits involving state government officials and filed in Franklin Circuit Court to be moved to another county or circuit. It's clearly a reaction to rulings by Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd against the Bevin administration (including the one on last years' teacher pension bill).

The ostensible reason is to save litigants travel time and expense in traveling to Frankfort and to argue suits in counties where events leading to the litigation occurred. But government officials would incur taxpayer expense by traveling across the state to attend court hearings? Bevin and some lawmakers claim Shepherd is biased but the Supreme Court upheld his pension bill ruling in a unanimous vote. This is an attempt by Bevin and his supporters to go judge shopping.

Another bill believed dead but which could be resurrected is House Bill 327, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Jason Petrie, R-Elkton. The measure would restrict public access to government records involving economic development; deny out-of-state residents access to public records through the law; and make the legislature the sole judge of whether to release its own records.

The measure was likely prompted by a ruling that the public and press had a right to records involving the state's $15 million direct investment in Braidy Industries, which plans to build and operate an aluminum rolling plant near Ashland. The state also is giving the company another $10 million in tax breaks. Supporters say the measure protects a company's proprietary interests, but the $15 million ownership stake makes the state and public part owners. And allowing lawmakers to decide what you should and shouldn't see is self-evidently a bad idea.

The open records and open meetings laws aren't designed to benefit the press; they're written to benefit the public. Private citizens have the same rights as the press to inspect such records or attend public meetings. There is no good reason to weaken those laws.

But lawmakers did the right thing in passing Sen. Wil Schroder's bill allowing open records requests to be filed by fax or email. Surprisingly, some state agencies still require a written request in the digital age.

Given the uproar over the past year about teachers' pensions and education funding, two other bills bear watching even though they've been declared dead in this session. House Bill 205 would provide tax credits to anyone who donates to private school scholarship funds for low-income children. HB 525 would restructure membership on the teachers' pension board -- seen by some as retaliation for the Kentucky Education Association's opposition to changes to the pension system.

So remember: the 2019 General Assembly and the mischief lawmakers could make won't end until they adjourn "sine die" sometime on the 28th.

Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column for CNHI. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.

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