Inch by inch, Repubs are eroding democracy in Frankfort

Bruce Maples
Bruce Maples

For some time, I have maintained that even though the Republicans in the General Assembly often file really bad bills, they are not as bad as the anti-democracy right-wing Repubs in Washington, or even in other states. After all, they haven’t filed the voter-suppression bills we’ve seen in other states. Nor have they passed a bill demanding an audit of the 2020 election. (Of course, as Berry Craig has pointed out to me more than once, they don’t do these things because they don’t need to. Let the Dems start creeping back toward parity, and watch the laws fly.)

I was discussing this with a leader in the Democratic party, and this person disagreed. Yes, they haven’t filed the same draconian bills that the Texas GOP has, this person said – but look at all the ways they are undermining democracy in Frankfort right now. Death by a thousand cuts is still death.

I got to thinking about it, and I have to agree. The Republicans in Kentucky’s General Assembly are pushing through changes that are clearly anti-democracy measures. Little by little, inch by inch, action by action, and vote by vote, they are dismantling small-D democracy in Frankfort.

Some anti-democracy actions by KY Repubs

Limiting debate – With super-majorities in both houses, Republicans are in total control. The only thing Democrats can do to get their voices heard is make their points during debate on a bill. So what happens the first day of this year’s session? The Repubs change the rules limiting debate, and give the Speaker the ability to shut down debate at any time.

Waiving posting – This seems somewhat esoteric, until you know what it is. At one time, there was a rule that committees in the legislature had to post a public notice that they were going to consider a certain bill, and that post had to be three days before the bill was going to be heard. This gave advocates, opponents, and the general public time to get informed about the bill and act upon it if they chose.

Then, the 3-day posting rule was changed to 1 day. Then this year, it was dropped altogether. Now committee chairs (all Republicans) can call up a bill with no notice at all, and the public has no recourse and no warning.

Ramming through redistricting maps without public input once the maps were made public – We all know about this one. The Repubs built their maps in secret, revealed them without allowing for any public debate, then passed them in a rush, public be damned. It was an anti-democracy power play – and unless it is struck down in court, they will get away with it.

Repeatedly suspending the rules to rush legislation through without public comment – The legislative process is supposed to provide time for debate, comment, and thought. After a bill passes out of a committee, it is supposed to have three readings over three days, and then be voted on.

We’ve already seen the Frankfort Repubs get rid of the posting of bills in committees. Now we’re also seeing them suspend the rules so they can push through their legislation as fast as possible. There have already been instances of a bill being voted out of committee in the morning and passing the chamber that afternoon, because the Republicans suspended the rules and dispensed with the first and second readings.

Using the rules to “hide” bills until the last minute – We all remember the Sewer Bill example, where Repubs substituted a pension bill into a sewer bill at the last minute (because it already had two readings), then voted it through, all in one day. This session we’ve already seen one important bill not be assigned to a committee for a hearing, but instead stay in the Committee on Committees until the last minute, so no one who was opposed to the bill had any idea who to contact it to oppose it.

Limiting access to open records and open meetings – For years now, the Republicans have been doing everything they can to limit or eliminate our open records and open meetings laws. Every session, there are more carve-outs, exceptions, and outright attacks on the public’s right to know. Consider these anti-democracy actions taken by Republicans:

  • Hiding public information on private devices – Any communications related to government and legislative action is supposed to be accessible through open records requests. The Republicans have repeatedly introduced bills to make that information off-limits to open records if the communication took place on a private device, like a cell phone. Their goal is to do their work in secret, without the ability of the public (or of journalists) to find out what they are doing.
  • Suing journalists and others for violating the new “privacy” law – This year they are trying once again to pass a bill protecting “personally identifiable information” from open records. You’re probably thinking about things like Social Security numbers, right? Think again; those sorts of things are already protected. No, according to the bill, anyone working for the government can request that a broad range of information be made exempt from open records requests. Open records advocates worry that this law will make it impossible to report on ethics violations by government officials, for example. And, the bill allows government officials to sue journalists who include, for example, their birth date in a story.

Banning debate in committee meetings – The real work of the legislature is done in committees. That is where bills are refined and improved, and this is done through debate. In a true democracy, the give and take in a committee is critical to producing the best bills possible.

But in an anti-democratic, authoritarian government, debate isn’t necessary, because the people in charge already know what they are going to do. So, in order to stop wasting time on debate, such governments outlaw debate.

Having already seriously restricted debate on the floor, now a Republican committee chair has basically outlawed debate in his committee. If you don’t debate the way he wants you to, he just won’t call on you ever again.

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Are these actions as egregious as the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th? No, of course not. But, they indicate both a pattern and a mindset. Repeatedly, Republicans in Frankfort have chosen the “we have the power, you don’t count” path – in other words, the authoritarian path. Each of these actions contributes to gradually eroding the foundations of our democracy.

They will cry “but the Dems did it before us!” I suspect the Dems enjoyed wielding power when they had it – but I don’t think they repeatedly chose to attack democracy itself.

And guess what, Republicans? It doesn’t matter what was done in ages gone by. YOU are in charge now – at a moment when our democracy itself is under attack. YOU can decide to stand for democratic principles and actions, or to take the anti-democracy route.

And if you will choose anti-democracy in these things, what will you choose when the stakes are even higher? Will you give yourselves the power to throw out election boards? Will you not only limit debate, but just get rid of it altogether? Will you do away with ethics commissions, and ignore the courts, and give yourselves the power to overrule anyone you disagree with?

Choosing democracy is hard. Sometimes it actually gives you and your group LESS power. But if you truly believe that democracy is better than authoritarianism, you make that choice. And if others in your group propose anti-democracy practices and actions, you oppose them. You stand for democracy.

Don’t just wear a flag in your lapel, Republicans. Show us by your actions that you will choose democracy.

Otherwise, you will wake up one day to discover that your “death by 1,000 cuts” approach to governing in Frankfort has actually resulted in death.

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Bruce Maples has been involved in politics and activism since 2004, when he became active in the Kerry Kentucky movement. (Read the rest of his bio on the Bruce Maples Bio page in the bottom nav bar.)

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