Formalities, Floor Debates, And Fluoride: The 2019 Session Begins

Jan 8, 2019

Lawmakers in Frankfort mostly attended to legislative housekeeping on the first day of the 2019 session, but made time for some unusual maneuvers.

'Authorized And Prepared To Do Business'

The shorter, odd year session began with the typical routine — leadership elections, photo ops, oaths of office, and learning to pronounce those brand new names on the roll. Thirty-two freshman took their seats in the House while veteran legislators welcomed two new faces to the Senate.

In the House, Rep. David Osborne was formally elected speaker. The Prospect Republican served as speaker pro tempore following the departure of Jeff Hoover, who stepped down in 2018 in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal.

Tuesday's most heated floor exchange centered on the contentious 13th House district race, which Democrat Jim Glenn won by just a single vote in November. His opponent, Republican DJ Johnson, is contesting the results, and Tuesday the debate spilled onto the House floor as GOP leaders opted to seat a panel of nine House members to review the election tallies. The randomly-drawn members of the panel include six Republicans and three Democrats.

"We stand behind the people's choice, the victor of the 13th district," said Frankfort Rep. Derrick Graham, one of the Democrats who cried foul over the move.

The ultimate result will not tip the balance of power in the chamber, which remains dominated by Republicans, but it could complicate the passage of any future pension reform bills. 2018's now-defunct Senate Bill 151 survived a nailbiter 49-46 vote in the House in the eleventh hour of the last regular session. And any bills that tinker with revenue or appropriations face a taller hurdle during the 30-day session, requiring 60 percent of the votes in both chambers as opposed to a simple majority.

Bills, Bills, Bills

Senate President Robert Stivers indicated that Senate Bill 1, the chamber's top priority, will be a school safety bill slated for introduction on Wednesday. The Republican also touted a measure aimed at putting tighter controls on lobbying.

"I was truly quite surprised [that] the requirements that are out there for lobbyists who are lobbying the legislative branch are by far more stringent than those that are lobbying the executive branch," Stivers said, adding he wants to see the rules at least brought into alignment.

But the new bill that might have come closest to trending on social media was a measure proposed by Sen. Steve West and Rep. Mark Hart. The Lexington Herald-Leader reports the legislation would permit local communities to opt out of fluoridating their water supplies, an action opposed by the Kentucky Dental Association.

“I see this as an unfunded mandate for local governments. Let the people drinking the water decide what goes into their water," Hart told the paper.

Protest Prep

Red-shirted teachers and other demonstrators dotted the House gallery, where they were greeted by signs that read: "Keep conversations quiet. No cameras, video cameras, or cell phone cameras. No disruptive behaviors including clapping or loud speaking. No signs. Turn off or silence cell phones while House is in session."

New rules posted inside the House gallery, as seen on January 8, 2019.
Credit Josh James / WUKY

Amanda Groves with the Poor People’s Campaign drove four hours from Western Kentucky to support Rep. Glenn. She said security seemed tighter this time around.

"No, you can't stand there. No, you can't sit there," she said, mimicking the guards posted around the Capitol. "It seems like they're trying to put roadblocks up to democracy."

Last year’s regular and special sessions drew vocal protesters, opposed to rapidly-passed pension reforms. Floor debates were nearly drowned out at times during December's short-lived special session, with demonstrators yelling at lawmakers they dubbed "sewer rats.” The label referenced Senate Bill 151, a former wastewater bill used to house last year's pension reforms.

With the pension debate back to square one following an unsuccessful attempt to resurrect the reforms, education leaders say they will keep close watch on the legislature in 2019. Denise Finley, a substitute teacher and self-described moderate Republican, says the controversial push to move future teacher hires out of traditional pensions and rewrite how sick time can be used toward retirement turned her into an activist.

"We tried to tell them that what they were doing last year would cause a teacher shortage, and now there's not enough substitutes already," she said.

Fourteen teachers who won election in the fall, as educators promised to "Remember in November." Those numbers fell far short of a sea change, however, with another 37 losing their races.

This year, House leaders say they don’t intend to “rush” the issue.