To view Part I of this post, click here.
My birthday is December 25. That makes birthday traditions and Christmas customs mingle together a bit. But one birthday tradition leaps out. It arrives every December in a large Styrofoam box packed with lots of dry ice. And at the bottom of that crate sit – like precious jewels – artisan made bratwursts! When my wife and one of our good friends were on a trip in Amish Country, they discovered the epi-center of the sausage-making universe. Everyone says, “You wouldn’t eat those if you saw how they were made.” Guess what – I don’t care! That annual supply of brats is so good that I am only concerned with the outcome of sausage making and not troubled in the least by the process of sausage making.
I have a bratwurst view of the just completed 2013 session, now that the final gavel has fallen. Yes, I realize that much of the Frankfort action was – at best – arcane. The talented Courier Journal columnist Joe Gerth recently noted major successes included Ale-8-One being named as the official “original” soft drink of Kentucky and Clark County becoming the official birthplace of beer cheese.
And I also know that lots of observers think that Otto Von Bismarck got it right in 1863 when he opined, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” Can I offer a counterintuitive view and embrace sausage making in Frankfort?
In a session where not a lot was supposed to be accomplished, Kentucky’s kids won big. When both the Herald-Leader and Courier-Journal editorialized on legislative accomplishments, each cited a limited number of substantative final wins. By our scorecard, three-fourths of the noted accomplishments were kid victories! WHOA! That doesn’t happen, does it? Maybe the coal or horse industries or the business community – but kids leaving Frankfort as the dominant winners? How did that happen? I would suggest through lots of sausage making. Instead of fighting it, let’s embrace some legislative creativity.
As an example, innovation was the name of the game in one case. The measure to raise the mandatory attendance age to 18 was first on the Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children agenda some five years ago. Unfortunately, the House and Senate were not able to agree on this measure and gridlock occurred. We thought it was a good idea from the start but had to acknowledge the legitimate concerns that schools faced in trying to engage disengaged youth. Over the past couple of years, the infrastructure for providing quality schooling to these young people improved with changes in alternative programs and vocational/technical education. While there were windows opening to get this done, the K-12 community, as usual, defaulted to its opposition of any mandate. But this year Senator David Givens, a legislator with initial concerns about this idea, proposed a fascinating solution. He proposed that school districts have the option to raise the mandatory age of attendance in their own districts but then install a tipping point to ensure that when a certain percentage of school systems adopted the measure, it would become state law and mandatory for all school districts. And it sailed through both chambers.
Another reason things got done for kids was that legislators embraced the idea that “Good is not the enemy of perfect.” THE example of that axiom was HB 290, which established the Child Fatality Review Panel. The General Assembly built upon the important first step of the Governor’s Executive Order, which originally created the panel last summer. Thanks to the work of multiple legislators in both the House and Senate, HB 290 provides more transparency and oversight for this process. But candidly, there is plenty of room for improvement. There were some tense moments around this piece of legislation as elected leaders and advocates tried to sort out the ideal with what was actually possible to get done this year. And I think some important lessons were learned. It took a long time for the issue of child fatalities due to abuse and neglect to gain the traction required for any changes. If the Executive Order began the process, HB 290 moved it forward. And let’s hope this step-by-step commitment to improving protections for children continues into 2014 as we tackle the sticky issues of where this panel should really be located and what we should expect in terms of transparency from panel members. The temptation is to wait for the perfect. I certainly felt it on this measure. But I think it is prudent and essential to embrace the good. And I wonder as the 2014 budget session dawns if there should not be more talk about incremental improvements to the tax and budget system rather than waiting for a “never to be” comprehensive package to become reality. We are not going to get perfect on the tax and budget side of things, but we can achieve the good.
There are other lessons to be sure. The passage of the human trafficking bill shows the power of an issue that just explodes onto the scene. Legislators recognized the terrible harm that could result from human trafficking and worked with advocates to find a solution. This is an example of bipartisan work with leadership from Representative Overly and Representative Wuchner and key support from the chairs of the Judiciary Committees in their respective chambers, Representative Tilley and Senator Westerfield. HANDS – the home visitation program for young parents – is a proven tool in preventing abuse and helping kids grow up well. And yet the bill to protect the HANDS program was dead in the waters once an amendment got attached to it. In what can only be described as “old-fashioned politicking”, the HANDS bill was attached to another bill, gained momentum and passed.
2013 was a success for Kentucky’s children. It was not due to a singular approach or silver bullet. Instead, it was because of a lot of lawmakers waging lots of creative strategies to win the day for young people. Thanks to those lawmakers with the acumen and courage to stand tall for kids, and let’s hope that these lessons become the launching pad for even more “Kentucky Kid Wins” in 2014. Even the most squeamish can embrace that kind of sausage making.