Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide. This column has been updated to reflect new developments since it was originally released to newspapers.
An initial statement by House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell, R-Lancaster, that then-Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, “has the full support” of the Republican caucus following claims of a sexual harassment settlement were as wrong as a preliminary police report that Sen. Rand Paul suffered only “minor injuries” when physically assaulted by a neighbor at his home in a gated community in Bowling Green.
It didn’t take long for the truth about the attack on Paul to come out; he suffered bruised lungs, several broken ribs and other damage – hardly “minor.”
It also didn’t take long for a group of conservative statehouse Republicans to dispute Shell’s claim about where the caucus stood regarding the sexual harassment settlement and ensuing cover-up involving Hoover and other GOP leaders.
“Contrary to what has been reported, the Representatives at issue did not have the ‘full’ support of the entire Republican caucus,” said an extraordinary statement issued by the gang of eight lawmakers the day after Shell’s statement, which no doubt helped seal Hoover’s resignation the following day.
Courier-Journal reporter Tom Loftus in assessing the fallout’s winners and losers rightly concludes that Shell’s statement was “not true, and a big mistake.”
But not everything coming out of Frankfort has been wrong.
On Wednesday, Nov. 1, the same day reports of the sexual harassment settlement broke, the attorney general’s office issued a spot-on decision in response to a Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government complaint that a closed-door meeting of the House of Representatives on Aug. 29 violated the Open Meetings Act.
Hoover said he held the meeting behind closed doors to allow legislators “a more comfortable setting” in which to discuss a consultant’s controversial recommendations for addressing the commonwealth’s public-pension crisis.
But comfort and convenience cannot be determinants regarding whether laws – including those requiring transparency – are followed.
These laws recognize that citizens have as much right to witness the formation of policies – the discussion and debate that occurs during the legislative process – as knowing how their representatives ultimately voted on bills.
Allowing such private discussions to go unchallenged could encourage-the entire House to close its doors to any meeting involving politically difficult deliberations.
“After all, it’s just a caucus meeting,” political leaders could claim.
The Bluegrass Institute Center for Open Government asked for three reasonable actions by House leaders:
- Acknowledge the statute was violated.
- Release any written record or audio or video recording of the closed meeting.
- Approve a resolution committing to future compliance with the Open Meetings Act.
Rather than do the right thing and acknowledge the statute was violated, the House appears to be doubling down and taking the matter to court.
However, not everything coming from House leadership has been wrong, either.
Several lawmakers have called for continued focus on solving Kentucky’s severe pension crisis.
Rep. Jerry Miller, R-Louisville, chairman of the State Government Committee, is urging members to not allow Hoover’s resignation and fallout to “distract us,” calling pension reform “the most important thing facing Kentucky from a fiscal-economic standpoint.”
Acting Speaker David Osborne, R-Louisville, said in a statement following a (legal) four-hour meeting of the GOP caucus that Republicans consider it “vital” that they both get the investigation of the scandal “right, and that we not lose sight of the policy problems facing our state as we do that.”
Some seem eager to use the scandal-plagued environment to avoid meaningful reform to Kentucky’s retirement systems, especially changes to the current structure of unsustainable benefits.
To say we can avoid a confrontation of our $65 billion pension crisis is not true and would, indeed, be a big mistake for this commonwealth and future generations of Kentuckians who would reap the consequences of such failure.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at email@example.com and @bipps on Twitter.