Minority party blues: Senate Democrats and House Republicans air grievances after first week back

02/07/2015 10:49 AM

FRANKFORT — Complaints of mistreatment by Senate Democrats and House Republicans on Friday drew one of this session’s quickest bipartisan responses: tough.

Majority parties in both chambers handled partisan scuffles as the eighth day of the 30-day session ended. Senate Democrats drafted their frustrations with the swift pace of legislation through the chamber during the first week of the session in January in a letter to Senate President Robert Stivers on Tuesday, then vented them in challenges to floor votes on Thursday.

Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones said a Monday meeting had been scheduled with Stivers and other members of Senate leadership to discuss Democrats’ issues with the chamber’s legislative process.

Mainly, Jones said Democrats would appreciate more than 15 minutes to review bills, some of which came out of committees the same day, before floor votes.

That also affects the minority party’s ability to file floor amendments, he said. Jones, D-Pikeville, brought 10 floor amendments to Senate Bill 6, which would create medical review panels in malpractice lawsuits.

But the Senate voted Thursday on a version of SB 6 amended in committee the day before, just enough time that Jones couldn’t follow the chamber’s twenty-four hour rule on filing floor amendments.

Even U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allowed votes on amendments to the Keystone XL pipeline authorization bill, Jones told reporters Friday.

“I filed 10 amendments on the medical malpractice screening panel legislation, and I think some of those amendments were very meritorious — minimum staffing standards for nursing homes, allowing people who have been the victims of sexual assault to be exempt from that process, or situations where doctors have been convicted of crimes or charged with crimes based upon the conduct that leads to the lawsuit, allow those people to exempt out,” said Jones, who exhausted his 30-minute time limit on a floor speech against SB 6 after his amendments were ruled out of order.

“Those amendments were never allowed to be voted on, and you know, the Republicans have a supermajority in this chamber,” Jones said. “No matter what we do, they’re going to be able to kill any amendment. The simple fact of the matter is it stifles debate on those issues.”

But Stivers, R-Manchester, called the Democrats’ tactics “guerrilla-warfare style” politics and suggested they file standalone bills, as some in the minority party have done, if they believe the issues are worthy of consideration.

What’s more, Senate Republicans are giving each bill its required readings — legislation must be “read” three times before floor votes — by suspending the chamber’s rules, Stivers said, noting that former Democratics Senate Presidents John “Eck” Rose of Winchester and Larry Saunders of Louisville followed the same procedure.

Without that ability, the legislature could never finish its work in special sessions within the minimal five days, he said.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer also dismissed his Democratic colleagues’ concerns, calling them “a classic wailing and gnashing of teeth by the smallest Democratic minority in the history of the commonwealth.”

“We’re running the Senate like we’ve been running it for years, and the last time I checked, we’ve been getting kudos for how we run the Senate,” said Thayer, R-Georgetown. “And it’s amazing to me that people are complaining that we’re actually working when I don’t think the House has passed a single bill yet.

Stivers looked across the Capitol for more egregious examples of partisanship, saying he has been more fair with the Senate’s committee assignments and participation in general proceedings than House Democratic leaders.

Senate Democrats aren’t shedding any tears for the House GOP, which saw its freshman members assigned to only one committee, he said.

“They want to talk about voices being stymied, but they selectively want to talk about that,” Stivers told reporters in his Capitol office.

Perhaps by coincidence, House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover railed against his chamber’s Democratic leadership around the time Jones voiced his frustrations.

House Democrats not only limited five first-term representatives to one committee each, but also removed Rep. Jonathan Shell, a newly appointed member of Republican leadership and a Garrard County farmer, from the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee in their committee assignments, Hoover said in a floor speech.

He also took leaders to task for the chamber’s lack of floor votes, pointing to the bills the Senate has sent to the House since convening the session in early January.

“What Kentuckians need to understand is we are leaving here today, we’ve been here this entire week, and we are leaving here today not voting on one single bill, not addressing one single problem facing Kentucky,” said Hoover, R-Jamestown. “And in the Senate, you may not agree with what they’re passing, but they’re taking action and we’re sitting down here, haven’t voted on a bill.”

That prompted a response from House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, who said the majority party followed the rules in assigning committees.

Still, he said he hoped the committee assignments wouldn’t mark “a line in the sand” between Democrats and Republicans, specifically he and Hoover, as the House starts voting out legislation next week.

“All I can do here today is extend my hand to him and tell him that I want to continue to have that same kind of relationship even though there’s times we’ll have to dig in, we’ll have to swing at each other, and I understand that,” Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said in a floor speech.

The delay in legislation has prompted House Democrats to consider holding leadership elections and committee assignments, which consumed the chamber’s leaders in the session’s first week, before lawmakers convene.

The Senate handled those matters in early December, allowing the chamber to start the legislative process immediately, Adkins said.

“We do spend pretty much those four days of doing nothing but electing leadership and committee assignments, so the process for us here, as far as the process, is a little bit behind,” he said.

Pure Politics reporter Don Weber contributed to this report.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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