Lawmakers have often spun their wheels in the 2012 General Assembly – due to budgetary constraints and political realities – but last week at least they took one small step of symbolic importance to people who value openness in government.
Committee negotiations on the biennial budget, held behind closed doors in past years, were open to public view – sort of. Reporters still had to sit outside the room and take notes on proceedings they viewed via KET’s public television cameras. But that’s better than being kept in the dark as negotiators allot $19 billion in taxpayers’ money.
It’s probably easier for legislators to thrash out the final details in public view now than it was when prosperity had them fighting over pork-barrel projects for their home districts. With most state agencies taking 8.4 percent spending cuts, the slush funds were slimmer this time and there was less flexibility in making choices. The session even got its budget done on time, for a change, without having to tinker with the Capitol clock or come back for a special session.
Most obviously hope the economy will improve and more money will furnish more positive benefits for Kentucky’s 4 million residents. But politicians still should adhere to the principle that budget planning needs to be conducted where the public can see what’s happening.
The legislature has a double standard. It’s been 38 years since members passed the Open Meetings Law, which required government agencies across the commonwealth to conduct most of their business publicly – but excluded themselves from the requirement.
Perhaps there were valid reasons for the exemption. City councils, fiscal courts, school boards and other community entities tend to be smaller bodies. Some, such as the Frankfort City Commission, are less burdened by partisan considerations, being elected without declaration of party affiliation. Democrats usually prevail in county government elections so partisan battles among officeholders are rare.
The legislature, by contrast, is a sprawling assembly of 100 in the House and 38 in the Senate, with stark divisions between the parties. The Senate is predominantly Republican while Democrats hold a 59-41 margin in the House. Legislators aren’t just keeping secrets from us, they’re constantly trying to hide things from each other as well.
A prime example was this year’s legislative redistricting fiasco in which Democrats and Republicans hit new lows cutting each others’ throats and now face Supreme Court orders to come up with a legal plan. It’d be better for the general public if they could somehow dispense with all the conspiracies and have the job done openly and professionally.
We, as voters, have to let our elected leaders know we’re tired of the backroom deals and want state senators and representatives to hash out their differences in full view just as they ordered local government to do under the Open Meetings Law.
David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association, told the Associated Press he likens the relationship between citizens and their citizen legislature to that of stockholders and corporate executives. Put another way, legislators are our employees; we need to watch what they’re doing so we can decide whether to let them keep doing it.