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Legislative Research Commission pay to join larger ethics push

Published 10:16 am Friday, January 17, 2014

Legislation aimed at strengthening personnel practices at the Legislative Research Commission and ethics standards for lawmakers will be combined under a comprehensive ethics bill sponsored by House Majority Caucus Chair Sannie Overly.

The House State Government Committee had been scheduled to consider House Bill 87 Thursday, which would require the LRC director to establish new personnel policies and give lawmakers some oversight of pay raises. 

But Rep. Brent Yonts, the committee’s chairman and sponsor of the bill, said it would be consolidated with others in Overly’s House Bill 3.

HB 3 would also require new personnel policies, though with help from the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet. The bill, which includes provisions on legislative ethics and workplace harassment training, would give nonpartisan LRC staff the ability to appeal a suspension, termination or other action to the Personnel Board.

Yonts, D-Greenville, said he could not speculate on a timeframe for the updated version of HB 3, which will also encompass an ethics bill sponsored by Yonts and another by Rep. Jeff Donohue, D-Fairdale, regarding workplace harassment training for lawmakers and LRC staff. He has not seen a final version of the bill.

“I think this bill, as it’s finally formulated, will make it stronger for passage … because it has things that are going to be hard to be against,” Yonts said.

The LRC is being sued by two partisan staffers in House Democratic leadership offices, who claim the agency mishandled their complaints of sexual harassment against former Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis. The LRC has defended its response to the complaints.

The State Journal has also reported on pay raises granted to Rita Ratliff, a retired administrative officer at LRC who has been romantically linked to former LRC Director Robert Sherman, who resigned a month after the sexual harassment complaints came to light. 

The newspaper reported Sunday dozens of LRC staffers — about a third of whom are in administrative or supervisory roles — have received raises since the last round of cost-of-living increases in fiscal year 2010 while the majority of
workers got nothing. 

Local legislators have heard from concerned LRC staff and say they support efforts to improve practices there.

Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, said he supports the intent of HB 3 and will probably co-sponsor the legislation in its amended form, though he will have to review it first.

“I believe that before raises are given, the LRC commission (comprised of Democrat and Republican leaders in the House and Senate) needs to look over those raises, but you’ve got to have a merit system to warrant those raises,” Graham said. 

The issue resonates with Rep. James Kay, D-Versailles, whose mother, Jamie Kay, works in the LRC’s project center. James Kay said the executive branch’s merit-based personnel system is “absolutely” the way forward, but he likes some aspects of HB 3 he’s seen.

Kay said lawmakers should look at other employment aspects at the LRC, such as including legislative employees in the Family Medical Leave Act and clarifying the agency’s maternity leave policy.

Graham and Kay said improvement in morale is needed at the LRC.

Yonts said some LRC workers, especially on the lower end of the pay scale, have thanked him for his bill, which he believes will be better positioned within HB 3.

“They have sort of felt hopeless until now,” he said. “… I was going through the food line recently in the cafeteria recently and a lady stopped by and said, ‘Thank you for your bill.’ That’s all she said. I knew what she was talking about.”

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