Lessons for Next Year: Reflections on the 2012 Legislative Session

Spring in Kentucky is a time filled with an array of annual rituals.

If it’s spring in the Commonwealth, you just know that all of John Calapari’s starters will leave for the NBA and that the Cats will re-load with another bumper crop of recruits.  You know that the Cards’ Spring game on the gridiron will kick off hope for the fall (Hey, my Cards are a football school!).  And then there is that horse race held on the first Saturday in May.

And if it’s spring in the Commonwealth, you just know that the General Assembly and Governor will receive a blistering report card from sages throughout the Commonwealth.  The Ashland Daily Independent asserts that this year’s legislative “failure is no surprise,” (April 15).  The Bowling Green Daily News contends that the state’s leaders again “failed its citizens,” (April 18).  The Lexington Herald Leader labels the 2012 session “a debacle,” (April 22), and The Courier Journal dismisses the legislative convening as a “dud,” (March 30).  Those journalists as well as an array of other observers, advocates and concerned citizens have every reason to as befuddled as they are angered at an environment that is as toxic as it is personal.

And yet in the midst of deserved criticism, there were some real silver linings.  Maybe … just maybe … the players in Frankfort can learn some lessons from this year’s positives and apply them to 2013.

Lesson #1:  Issues can and should trump ideology.

Rep. Joni Jenkins (D, Shivley) and Sen. Ken Winters (R, Murray) waged battle for some of Kentucky’s most vulnerable young people and carried the day for them.  These two legislators put the skids on the egregious practice in which superintendents punish employees with disciplinary problems by assigning them to alternative programs (HB 168).  Winters and Jenkins understand that students of alternative programs need skilled and motivated educators who want to be there and are not served when teachers are “sentenced” to alternative programs as punishment.  Jenkins and Winters would agree that they hold antithetical views about many issues – but on this score, they found agreement.   Hmmmm … I wonder.  What if that lesson were applied to other issues by other legislators?

Another example of the Winters/Jenkins dynamic duo’s work across the aisle was to make sure youth in foster care have the support they need as they age out of care.  Jenkins and Winters reached out to foster youth themselves and listened.  Together they cobbled together a beginning step in extending the time that foster care youth have to decide whether to stay in the care of the state until they turn 21.  Both the legislators and the advocates who worked with them agree that SB 213 was a small and beginning step.  It neither changed the overarching framework of the system nor will it immediately alleviate the problems that beset the foster care system in Kentucky.  But it is a beginning small step for foster youth.

Lesson #2:  Systemic change just may begin with a small step.

Rep.  John Tilley (D, Hopkinsville) and Sen. Tom Jensen (R, London) – chairs of their respective chambers’ Judiciary Committee – took the same early win approach on juvenile justice in creating a task force to tackle reforming that system, especially when it comes to locking up youth for things like skipping school or running away (known as status offenses).  Again, neither Tilley nor Jensen would suggest that simply creating the task force will change a single thing for a single kid in Kentucky.  But it is a beginning small step.  Hmmmm … I wonder.  What if we applied that lesson to our tax and budget system?

Let’s face it.  A Governor’s Task Force; endless hearings; newspaper editorials; or rallies in the Rotunda are not going to bring consensus on broad issues of tax and budget.  So what if we didn’t approach tax and budget reform as an “all-in, comprehensive” or nothing situation?  Maybe we could start small.  Take an idea like the Earned Income Tax Credit – an idea that, at the federal level, unites Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Obama – and could unite the triumvirate of Beshear, Stumbo and Williams.  Pass it.  Implement it.  Savor its impact on working families and local economies.  A small step.  But a win.  And maybe a door opener for bigger agreements on larger issues of tax and budget policy.

Lesson #3:  Political courage may be rare but it can and should be mustered by leaders and celebrated by citizens.

What about an under-discussed piece of political courage actually shared by the aforementioned “Frankfort Three”?  We all know that Kentucky’s budget is marked by constraints and austerity.  The easiest approach in the world to a budget under those circumstances is across the board cuts.  But the Governor showed moxie and the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate showed statesmanship when they stood tall in committing some $21 million in additional support for social workers to combat the crisis in child abuse and neglect.  Any of those players could have placated some powerful constituencies like higher education and held that component of the budget to a reduced or stationary level of funding.  Certainly, Senator Williams could have politicized the issue of child welfare, given the Beshear Administration’s rather queasy record on that score.  But no one took the easy way.  No one took the political road.  Instead, Kentucky’s kids will be better protected because of the budget that passed. Hmmm … I wonder.  What if that same political courage were applied to the high price of being poor?

Don’t get me wrong.  The 2012 session had its share of fumbles, foibles and failures.  Kentucky’s kids did not get the kind of transparency and accountability protections they deserve when it comes to fatalities due to abuse and neglect.  No one uttered a peep about the continuing climate of predatory practices that rip off low income families across the Commonwealth.  There was no effort to re-invigorate fundamental reform within the K-12 system.  And, there are still myriad issues with the new Medicaid managed care system which impact thousands of low-income children and families.

However, in the midst of the rituals of Spring, let’s take a break from the usual and celebrate some of the lessons we can draw from the 2012 session.  Even more importantly, let’s hope that President Williams, Speaker Stumbo, Governor Beshear, and the other players in Frankfort apply those lessons in 2013 in ways that are as bold as they are imaginative.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *