Al Cross: Legislature overdoes it in trying to trip up Beshear

For a few minutes on the ides of March, it seemed the legislature was really legislating.

Faced with a transgender-youth bill that ignored medical advice, the state Senate did a rare thing in this era of tight partisan control: It voted on a substantive floor amendment, and wonder of wonders, narrowly passed it.

The amendment to House Bill 470 from Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, made “a bad bill better,” said Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington. Under the amendment, minors could get some nonsurgical medical treatments with parental consent, and transgender youth could change their names on birth certificates, contrary to the original bill.

The amendment passed 19-17, with all seven Democrats joining 12 of the 30 Republicans to make a majority. Most GOP leaders were on the losing side – also highly unusual.

When faced with issues that could split their party caucuses, leaders often maneuver to block floor amendments, limiting debate and tough votes that could be used against legislators in the next election. They couldn’t do that in this case, because the bill had cleared a committee on the votes of Carroll and Republicans Whitney Westerfield and Julie Raque Adams, who made clear that it would have to be changed on the floor. (Adams, the GOP caucus chair, passed on the floor amendment.)

So the bill was changed on the floor. But there are many ways to pass legislation, and more ways to kill it. Bear with me:

Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer then turned to Sen. Gex Williams, R-Verona, who moved to table the bill, which would have required 19 votes (the 38-member Senate has one vacancy) to revive it. President Robert Stivers started to order a roll call, then asked Williams if he wanted to lay it on the clerk’s desk (which would require only a simple majority vote to revive it). After conferring with staffers who came to his seat, Williams changed his motion.

The bill was laid on the desk by a different vote of 19-17, as some Republicans switched sides. Those who voted for the amendment, but then to lay the bill aside, were Sens. David Givens of Greensburg, the president pro tem, perhaps following the lead of other GOP leaders (Adams passed again); and Jared Carpenter of Berea and Matt Deneen of Elizabethtown. Sen. Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon went the other way, voting against Carroll’s amendment but then against laying the bill aside.

Interviewed six days later, Higdon said he was “maxed out” that night and couldn’t recall why he switched. Carpenter, in his 13th year in the Senate, said it was the first time he had seen such a process and outcome, and “Once we got to that level, we didn’t need to go ahead and pass it . . . I felt something was not right and I didn’t have a comfort level with it.”

That’s what the Senate has come to: Veteran legislators aren’t comfortable with what should be common legislative process. It’s the kind of thing that happens when a majority party has what Higdon called “a hard, fast rule” that no bill will come to the floor unless it has a majority of that majority (example currently pending: sports betting), and most of the real debate on controversial bills is in private – especially in the daily, secret caucus of Republican senators. They’re not fully accustomed to public give and take.

The day after the Senate dealt with HB 470, the House added most of its original contents to Senate Bill 150, passed it, and the Senate concurred in the changes 30-7, sending Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear another culture-war bill to veto.

The point man on that end-around was Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, running mate of gubernatorial candidate Kelly Craft. His leadership on the bill should help them as they try to overtake Attorney General Daniel Cameron for the May 16 nomination to face Beshear, but an advantage in the primary may be a disadvantage in the general election. Beshear has criticized the bill as an invasion of parents’ rights, and has labeled other Republican culture-war measures as extreme.

Republicans tagged Beshear with that label for policing a few scofflaw churches in the pandemic, but went to their own extremes with him, quashing his expansion of Medicaid dental and vision benefits with money the program saves by having one pharmacy-benefits manager. His administration says more than 8,000 newly eligible people, in all 120 counties, have already benefited. That ends July 1.

Republicans groused about then-Gov. Steve Beshear’s expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare but never really did anything about it, fearing blame for hurting needy Kentuckians. Now, eager to oust his son, they are allowing Andy Beshear to cast himself in the role of moderate caregiver that he cultivated in the pandemic, building public support. Vengeance and culture wars are risky.

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.