Monday, December 07, 2009

Our Old Kentucky Legislative Home

Malcolm E. Jewell and Penny M. Miller. The Kentucky Legislature: Two Decades of Change. Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

The Kentucky legislature was, in the 1960s and prior, a largely ineffective institution that exerted relatively little political power in Kentucky state politics. During a two decade period afterwards, the Kentucky Governor’s office decreased its control over the legislature. The legislature achieved a stronger balance of power with the Executive branch. The Kentucky legislature became more professional, legislators tended to serve more terms, and a greater institutional knowledge emerged within the legislature. Kentucky legislators overall became more attentive to the voters, especially as they increased constituent services.

Kentucky’s changes to its legislature were part of a national trend. During those two decades, the number of legislatures that met only every other year fell from 31 to 7. Legislators became more proactive on state issues and expected greater influence in policy formation.

Having more influence helped encourage legislators to remain on the job. In the 1960s, there were turnover rates in the state House at 41% and in the State Senate at 37%. The turnover rate in the 1950s was about half. This compared to turnover rates in the 1980s of 28% in the state House and 24% in the state Senate.

The Kentucky Constitution places a 60 day legislative session every two years. Yet beginning in 1968, the legislature began meeting in committees in between sessions to better study issues.

The Kentucky Governor chose legislative leaders until 1979 when Governor John Brown, Jr. stopped this tradition.

From 1947-65. 44% of House members and 52.0% of Senate members retired, 11/0% of House members and 14.6% of Senate members lost primaries, 4.0% of House members and 1.2% of Senate members lost general elections, meaning 73.2% of House members and 67.1% of Senate members who sought reelection were reelected. From 1979-86, 11.8% of House members and 19.7% of Senate members retired, 6.2% of House members and 6.6% of Senate members were defeated in primaries, and 3.0% of House members and 4.0% of Senate members lost in the general elections, meaning that 89.5% of House members and 86.9% of Senate members who sought reelection were reelected.

In constant dollars, winning Kentucky House members in contested races spent a median of $2,482 in 1975 and $7,141 in 1984. Winners of contested Senate races spent a median of $4,125 in 1975 and $15,398 in 1983.

The author found most incumbents who were defeated in general elections where in districts where both political parties were electorally competitive. Incumbents who lost in primaries tended to lose after redistricting and were placed in new districts with many new voters. The leading changes challengers used to defeated incumbents was to claim they were not effective, were not getting services to the district, were inaccessible, were lazy or did not represent the majority views of constituents.

Several legislators told the authors that the best way to win reelection is to work hard at their legislative duties. Doing a good job may discourage serious challengers from running.

In contested legislative races, there was less of an advantage in being the candidate who spent more on the campaign than this was an advantage in other states. This is likely because Kentucky campaigns tended to cost less and the spending advantage was a smaller proportion than the advantage found in other states.

Kentucky legislators, as also seen in many other legislatures nationwide, tend to be business executives, professionals especially lawyers, and farmers. About one fifth are lawyers.

Women composed 3.3% of Kentucky legislators in 1951, 4.5% in 1971, and 13.3% in 1983.

Many legislators express difficulty with merging legislative life with their personal life, including their careers and families.

Most Kentucky legislators had (as of 1988 printing) no staff, no district office, no free mailing privileges, and a relatively (compared to other states) small expense account. The Kentucky legislature created a research office that researches issues and help with media contacts. It had six full time employees in 1986.

Kentucky legislators believe most of the letters and phone calls they receive are from organized campaigns on issues. They further believed most of the people contacting them are not fully aware of the issues and only have little personally vested in the matters in which they contact them. An exception to this were contacts regarding large increases.

A 1982 survey of legislators determined that constituent services were considered important to legislators in California, Texas, Ohio, and Massachusetts, were of moderate concern in Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee, and of relatively less concerns in Colorado and North Carolina. The survey found that these services were important in state where patronage was long established. This tends to mean the public was used to approaching politicians for services.

Kentucky legislative rules and procedures before 1968 had the Governor choose legislatives leaders who would send bills according to the Governor’s wishes to committees whose members were loyal to the legislative leaders and the Governor. In the last 15 legislative days, all committees ceased to exist except for the Rules Committee. Thus, the Rules Committee could move forward a bill that had been held in committee.

In 1967, Democratic Lt. Gov. Harry Lee Waterfield, correctly sensing divisions in the Democratic Party may lead to there being a Republican Governor, successfully led passage of new legislative procedures. The new process created similar committees in both Houses, abolished having only the Rules Committee operate in the last 15 legislative days, and allowed committee to operate between sessions. During the 1970s committees were required to create agendas and have regular meetings. This also increased legislative costs which were appropriated $3,028,176 in 1968-70 and $35,102,750 in 1986-88.

There is no legislative seniority system in committees. This results in members moving more often to different committees. A House rule was adopted that assured a legislator could keep on of three committee assignments in the next session, which created some retention of committee members and of institutional knowledge.

The Kentucky legislature increased its involvement in the budget and oversight processes. This was found to have reduced the influence of interest groups.

Legislative leaders who operate secretly without involving other legislators have drawn criticism and even been replaced by legislators. Leaders have different styles. Speaker Bobby Richardson attempted passage of his priorities and he sought to influence legislators to vote according to his desires. Speaker Don Blanford preferred to find and create a consensus on how legislators could agree to act.

Kentucky has a strong Governor. This was by tradition rather than by law. The Governor, as in most other states, can veto all bills including appropriations bills. A veto can be overridden by majority vote in both Houses which gives the legislature more influence than in other states that require more than majority votes. The power of the Kentucky Governor existed in political party leadership, patronage, and budgetary influence. Since these require political strengths, it required a strong political person of the same political party as the legislature to strongly influence the legislature. Governors John Brown Jr. and Martha Lane Collins chose not to exert as strong influence as did previous Governors.

With the increase of legislative power, a greater portion of political action committee contributions have gone to legislative races rather than to the Governor’s race.

The increase in legislative activity and influence helped cause an increase in the number and range of interest groups that attempt to influence legislation.


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