When lawmakers gather in Frankfort, they usually waste time for two months and then try to pack a year’s worth of legislating into the last few days of the session. Not surprisingly, the results are often mixed, with some good bills becoming law and some very bad, jury-rigged pieces of legislation also emerging from the rush to adjournment.
The first order of business for the legislature is passing a budget, but the negotiations on the state spending plan always go down to the wire as lawmakers desperately search for money to pay for programs and projects that appeal to the maximum number of political constituencies.
This year’s bloated, unbalanced $18.1 billion budget is as ugly as sin. It’s so ugly that the next generation of Kentuckians will be able to see its hideousness in the hefty finance charges they’re paying on the $2.3 billion debt lawmakers ran up on the public’s credit card. Gov. Ernie Fletcher may be able to clean up the 600-page monster a bit by vetoing some of its worst features, but the taxpayers still are going to suffer from the budget’s gross excesses.
Some good did come from the final days of the session. The House and the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill that will help ensure that high school graduates are better-prepared for college.
The legislation requires all high school juniors to take the ACT college entrance exam as part of the state’s testing and accountability system. Many education officials believe that the ACT mandate will encourage high schools to concentrate on developing a rigorous, college-prep curriculum. The test also will focus students’ attention on the need to diligently prepare for college.
Adding the ACT to the state’s accountability system will give parents and policy-makers a clearer picture of the performance of the schools. The ACT is a national test that is acknowledged as a reliable predictor of how well students will do in college.
Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, was the main sponsor of the ACT bill. Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, touted the bill in the House, saying that it would deal with “a crisis in transition for our kids in college.”
The ACT bill was a true bipartisan achievement. Unfortunately, as the session wound down, Democrats and Republicans also came together to support a bad bill that puts new restrictions on individual freedom in the name of enforcing personal safety.
Bad bills often come with self-righteous arguments. Sometimes, those arguments are made even when it’s apparent that lawmakers have less than idealistic motives for supporting the legislation.
Such was the case with a bill approved by the House and Senate that will give police the power to stop motorists and ticket them for not wearing a seat belt. Under current law, motorists can’t be ticketed for not wearing a seat belt unless they’re stopped for another violation.
The bill’s advocates, including Gov. Fletcher, argued that limiting the freedom of adults to decide whether to take measures to enhance their own safety was justified because the primary enforcement law would save lives.
Debate over the measure was sidetracked by a flap about possible police abuse of the law. The real issue here wasn’t the conduct of the police but the police power of the state. Libertarians worried about the increasing intrusiveness of government believe that decisions about personal safety should be left to individuals. Giving the state the power to force citizens to do ‘what’s good for them” is authoritarianism, albeit with a benevolent face.
In any event, many lawmakers clearly were motivated to support the seat-belt bill by the desire to claim an $11 million federal ‘incentive” offered to states that do Washington’s bidding by passing a primary seat-belt enforcement law.
Idealism or no idealism, lawmakers aren’t going to leave any public money on the table. The seat-belt bill and the ugliness of the budget prove that.