Journal-Times (Grayson, KY)

March 9, 2011

Bi-partisanship the key to penal code reform

By Ronnie Ellis - CNHI News Service
CNHI

March 9, 2011 —     Frankfort  – Much has been made of the bi-partisan process which produced the General Assembly’s major reform of the state’s penal code.

    That’s as it should be, because the measure is the most significant legislation in years, and Sen. Tom Jensen, Rep. John Tilley and the task force that crafted it demonstrated the best of the legislative process. But it also showed by contrast both how infrequently the process works that way in Frankfort.

    As the task force, the governor, and others gathered Thursday to celebrate passage of the bill, that contrast was obvious. Some who had done little to help – and at least one who had thrown a monkey wrench into the works at the last minute – showed up to take credit. (I don’t mean the Speaker of the House, President of the Senate or the governor. When their times came, they stood up.)

    Everyone talked about how the task force, and especially Tilley and Jensen, worked with stakeholders, sometimes forced compromise, and produced a bi-partisan piece of good policy. Tilley said the process was actually non-partisan.

    But it occurred during a session in which controversial and questionable measures were pushed through with as little debate as possible. Hanging above everything Thursday was an impasse between the Republican Senate on one side and the governor and Democratic House on the other: how to deal with a Medicaid shortfall. Regardless of its merits, the plan put forth by Gov. Steve Beshear and approved by the House was known for weeks. But although most anticipated the general outlines of what the Senate proposed, important details weren’t revealed until last Tuesday night and then quickly passed on the floor the next day along mostly partisan lines.

    Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, pointed out how little debate occurred on a major bill and that it was passed by the same Republicans who earlier offered a measure to require a 48-hour advance posting of legislation before votes.

    Other bills, like a controversial measure to allow optometrists to perform laser procedures previously restricted to ophthalmologists, were rushed through with as little debate as possible and in the case of the optometry bill, with heavy doses of campaign cash. There have been the usual games of legislative chicken and blackmail, attaching amendments to unrelated bills and gutting one chamber’s bill to replace it with something the other wants but can’t pass in the opposite chamber.

    Clearly the example provided by Tilley and Jensen of what can be done for the state’s citizens didn’t inspire lawmakers to be bi-partisan or non-partisan, engage in open debate or compromise. One Frankfort veteran, a successful lobbyist who has seen several legislative sessions, talked about the contrast late Thursday night.

    He bemoaned the apparent death of a good bill which would protect people from unscrupulous financial predators. Part of the reason, he said, was that some who might be affected by the bill didn’t understand it and feared its consequences – not on those whom it was designed to protect or those who were preying on them – but on third parties who might be inconvenienced.

    “The older I get, the more I realize that we have to talk about these things out in the open, to take the time to make sure everyone understands the bill.”

    Isn’t that a novel idea, considering legislation on its merits and actually doing the public’s business right there in public? Jensen and Tilley showed that works, even on what many thought was an absolutely intractable problem. It’s time others followed their lead.

    RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com.