Study: Kentucky legislature makes it ‘increasingly difficult’ for public participation

The Kentucky General Assembly is passing more and more bills using procedures that limit transparency and make it more difficult for citizens to be informed participants in government, a new study has found.

The League of Women Voters of Kentucky Wednesday released a report highlighting what it calls a “pattern of increasing use of fast-track maneuvers that make participation more difficult.”

Those procedures are:

  • Giving a bill a reading before any standing committee has taken action on it.

  • Adopting committee substitutes of bills with little discussion or public comment.

  • Taking floor votes within a day of final committee action on a bill.

  • Adopting free conference committee reports within a day of being released.

“Legislative transparency equals public visibility,” Becky Jones, first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Kentucky, said at a news conference at the Capitol Annex.

“The legislature’s rules, when followed, should ensure that our lawmakers adhere to a fundamental principle of democracy, which is this: people have a right to participate in decisions that affect them.”

The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization with chapters in all 50 states that is “dedicated to empowering everyone to fully participate in our democracy.”

Its analysis looked at every other 60-day session between 1998 and 2022 for seven total meetings of the General Assembly and analyzed the pathway of every bill that ultimately became law, according to the study methodology.

In 1998 and 2002, 5% or fewer of the bills passed used any of the four fast-tracking measures, the organization found.

But by 2014, that increased to 42% of House of Representatives bills and 29% of Senate bills passed.

A new report from the League of Women Voters of Kentucky has found that the General Assembly has passed more and more bills using procedures that make the process less transparent.
A new report from the League of Women Voters of Kentucky has found that the General Assembly has passed more and more bills using procedures that make the process less transparent.

Republicans have effectively controlled the state Senate since the late 1990s and took over the House beginning with the 2017 legislative session.

The report highlights examples of “damage to the democracy principle,” including 2018’s Senate Bill 151.

Officially, SB 151 was called “an act relating to the local provision of wastewater services.” Colloquially, it has another name: “The sewer bill.”

The original bill was hastily converted to a 291-page pension bill as a committee substitute on the 57th day of a 60-day session — the final day before the veto period — and then rushed through final chamber votes in a matter of hours with no public review and little chance for debate.

Ultimately, that bill was unanimously struck down by the Kentucky Supreme Court, which found that Republican legislative leaders erred by not giving the pension bill the constitutionally required three public readings.

The use of so-called “shell bills” and last-minute committee substitutes was scrutinized during the 2023 legislative session.

An ultimately unsuccessful attempt to legalize carrying concealed weapons on college campuses began as “an act relating to workforce development.”

A bill regulating Delta-8 THC products was originally filed as a bill making technical language changes to a state cabinet.

And most controversially, a committee substitute to Senate Bill 150 revived what had become a flagging GOP effort to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth after a House bill on the matter got snagged in the Senate.

“In the dirtiest of dirty tricks, the revised bill was voted on in a last-minute unscheduled committee meeting. Fellow Democratic members of the committee and I only learned of the meeting haphazardly, making it clear that we — and the people we represent — were meant to be excluded,” Rep. Lisa Willner, D-Louisville, wrote in an op-ed for the Herald-Leader.

“I was literally running to the committee room as the roll was called, arriving in time to shout ‘here’ from just outside the committee room. A motion was made and seconded to approve the bill before it was presented, and our questions to clarify what was in this brand new version of the bill were treated dismissively.”

The League’s report also included recommendations to the General Assembly to improve transparency:

  • Give bills all three of their required readings after a committee refers it to a full chamber for a vote.

  • Make committee substitutes available online at least one day before the meeting where it will be considered.

  • Allow at least one day between the last standing committee action on a bill and the full chamber vote on it.

  • Allow at least one day between free conference committee changes and the full chamber vote on that bill.

Spokespeople for legislative leaders did not immediately return a Herald-Leader request for comment about the new report.

The 2024 General Assembly begins Jan. 2.