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Al Cross: Kentucky officeholders use their power, official and unofficial

The use of power in American politics is a subject of much study. In the last week or so, we’ve seen examples of Kentucky politicians using power from various sources, official and unofficial. It’s a lot to describe in 800 words, but here’s a try:

The Kentucky constitution gives the General Assembly power to spend the state’s money, but a state law says the governor recommends an Executive Branch budget to the legislature, so legislators have always worked from the governor’s budget. But not this time.

Republicans who control the House made Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s Thursday-night budget speech largely irrelevant by introducing their own budget six days earlier. Rarely in Kentucky has so much political thunder been stolen. Beshear had to start putting out his budget in pieces, starting with an education plan that includes the state’s first pre-kindergarten program, but it didn’t have the impact that it would have had without what he called the House’s “stunt.”

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.

The move was a surprise, but Speaker David Osborne noted on KET Monday night that he’d said for months that the House would have “the most aggressive timeline on budgeting in recent history” because “We do have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do tax reform” and “They are competing forces.” So, the House apparently plans to write a budget with much money unspent, creating an outline for tax cuts.

Republicans can do it that way because the state has a $2 billion surplus, and they aren’t interested in giving Beshear lots of money to spend as he seeks re-election. Pre-kindergarten looks unlikely; Senate President Robert Stivers said on KET, “I’m not a fan of pre-K. I think kids need to be kids. Let ‘em be out and be in their system. . . . Let’s incent businesses to start their own daycare” rather than “sort of institutionalizing our children from a very young age.”

Senate Democratic Leader Morgan McGarvey, father of a 3-year-old, disputed that: “We know that 95% of the brain is wired by age 5. . . . This is making sure that kids have social abilities and fine motor skills and can pick out colors and are kindergarten-ready so they can achieve that lifelong learning.”

But that view has relatively few legislative voices; Democrats are so heavily outnumbered that they have almost no power. Does Beshear’s good standing with the public give him power to generate a groundswell of public support to persuade the legislature to pass pre-K? It seems unlikely, but some well-placed Democratic challengers in legislative races would help.

Republicans made Democrats’ election tasks more difficult by exercising the decade-lasting power that legislative majorities have to draw district lines to their advantage. The new House map chops up several Democratic districts, and two pairs of Democratic representatives in Louisville are now in the same districts (easily done because so many live close to each other, in districts Democrats drew to suit incumbents over the decades). But two pairs of Republicans in the east and west were matched up, too; that could have been avoided by moving one Nelson County precinct, creating a ripple effect across the state, but Republicans said they wanted to split the minimum 23 counties.

Congressional redistricting went likewise. Democratic Franklin County was moved from the 6th District to the 1st, having little effect on the latter but considerable on the former, which has been the state’s only swing district. The 1st has been weirdly shaped since 1992 because Democrats didn’t want to put Owensboro in it when the state lost a district, and unless that happens, unofficial power to draw the map lies with incumbents.

Meanwhile, Kentucky’s most powerful incumbent, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, broke his nearly year of silence about the 2020 election, endorsing the statement of Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., that “The election was fair, as fair as we have seen.” McConnell had said likewise, quite forcefully, before and after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, but backed off when most Republican senators, craven to Donald Trump and his Big Lie about the election, wouldn’t join him.

Effectiveness of power often depends on timing. It was time for McConnell to say that he’s running again for leader, in the face of attacks by Trump; and time to confront Democrats’ push for voting-rights legislation. In doing so, he said the idea that American democracy “is on its deathbed” is “the Democrats’ Big Lie.”

That showed McConnell displaying partisan solidarity, but ignored the gravest danger Democrats cite: new laws in some key states that would allow partisan subversion of election results. It was a sort of political ju-jitsu, using the opposition’s strongest phrase against them. If you want to know how to use power, study Mitch McConnell. If only he used it more for our greater good, not partisan advantage.

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One Comment

  1. Ruth Bamberger says:

    McConnell’s way of exercising power has largely contributed to a dysfunctional Congress. He has lost any sense of what it takes to exercise power in the interest of a common good. History will treat him a s a tragic figure and a failed politician whose politics eliminated negotiation, compromise and dealmaking which is the essence of effective governance, He exemplifies what is wrong with the Republican Party today/

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