This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Herald Leader on March 15, 2019.
A high and holy season in the Bluegrass is upon us – March Madness. I will deeply dive into the metrics of winning basketball before completing my bracket. And my grandkids will consider elements like favorite mascots and team colors before completing theirs – and they will beat me. So, while I may be unable to accurately project winners, this I know:
At some point during the tournament, a player for an underdog will heave a half-court shot or take a three-pointer as he falls out of bounds; that impossible to make shot will actually be nothing but net swish; the buzzer will sound; and we will all be stunned by an upset that no one will have seen coming. And just as certainly, a really great player for a sure-bet favorite will miss both ends of a free throw, and that favorite will be heading home. And no one will have seen that upset loss coming either.
The General Assembly has not quite finished its business with its final day of session – or Sine Die – on March 28. And, in fact, important business remains on the table. As an example, children and health champions are counting on the General Assembly to make House Bill 11, championed by Representative Moser and Senator Alvarado, a reality to ensure tobacco-free campuses in every school district in Kentucky.
However, the General Assembly’s work to date does remind me of those two sides of March Madness certainties when it comes to kids and families. The good news is that there was an abundance of upset wins.
House Bill 2, sponsored by Representatives Fugate and Meade, was an upset win as it continued our progress in child welfare reform, especially around supportive services for kinship families. House Bill 158, sponsored by Representative Meade, builds on that progress, too, as it prepares the commonwealth for implementation of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, a sure win for kids and families. House Bill 378, sponsored by Representatives Meade and Jenkins, to ensure educational stability and supports for youth experiencing homelessness was another upset win, as was Senate Bill 57, sponsored by Senator Higdon, which advances justice reform with a wise and family-friendly revision around felony expungement.
But there is no question that THE upset, slam-dunk win came in Senate Bill 1. In the aftermath of the tragic Marshall County school shooting, a work group was organized around school safety comprised of Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate members, and key community experts. The topic is emotional and complicated. It lends itself to ideological rhetoric. The focus could have easily – and sadly – become “arm those teachers!” or an equally simple-minded and wrong-headed solution. But thankfully, the conversation embraced the complexity of the issue and focused on solutions. And that means mental and behavioral health services, better trained school-based law enforcement personnel, and smart facility enhancements. No one could have foreseen the scope and wisdom that is encapsulated in SB 1, and real credit goes to work group co-chairs Senator Wise and Representative Carney, as well as to Speaker Osborne and President Stivers for leading a process that is a major win for Kentucky’s kids and educators.
As inspiring as those upset wins are, there were some free throw misses that resulted in surprising losses in Frankfort. If there were two issues on which all sides of the political spectrum agreed, those were bail reform and raising the legal age around purchase and possession of tobacco products. Leaders from the right and left – and I as well – proclaimed these “slam dunks” as the opening gavel fell.
How could anyone oppose the idea that parents arrested for low-level, non-violent offenses should not be locked up – away from their children – because they couldn’t afford bail, while people charged with violent offenses were being released because they had the monetary resources for release? Or who thinks that keeping kids from getting hooked on e-cigarettes and other tobacco products is a bad idea for them and the state’s Medicaid budget? Slam dunks, right? Not so fast.
For reasons that still are mysterious, those sure wins faded away as the legislative weeks wound down.
As the 2019 session closes, we still have too many moms and dads locked up when they shouldn’t be and too many kids with access to harmful vaping products. It is important that Kentuckians – and elected leaders – who are children’s champions hit the pause button and reflect: How did a SB 1 happen? And how did bail reform not happen? And then we need to extrapolate lessons learned and turn our attentions to 2020.
Can we ensure that a common ground around kids emerges during the governor’s race? Can we ensure that children and families are a priority as legislative leaders begin the important work of preliminary budget work for the January 2020 session? And, can we ensure that at the close of the 2020 session there is a bounty of upset kid-policy wins and a paucity of kid-based missed free throws? When we answer a definitive “yes” to those questions, then we will have a winning bracket and a better Commonwealth.