It’s time to restore citizen participation in Kentucky lawmaking process

December 4, 2023 5:40 am

“Citizens may feel that the only way to be heard is through public protest and disruption” when legislative maneuvers are used to fast-track bills in ways that exclude public participation. A Kentucky State Police officer removed a protester who was part of a group shouting from the gallery as the House debated overriding Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of anti-trans Senate Bill 150, March 29, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Mariah Kendell)

Our representative democracy rests on a basic principle: The people have a right to participate in decisions that affect them. 

The League of Women Voters of Kentucky is concerned by any weakening of that principle. In our new “How Can They Do That?” report, we show that Kentucky’s General Assembly has increasingly fast-tracked legislation in ways that make citizen participation nearly impossible, and we urge action to reverse that trend. 

Four main maneuvers have been shrinking citizen participation: 

  • Holding required bill“readings” before any committee action. Those readings are a state constitutional requirement. They should be held on three separate days, after committee action and before the House or Senate vote, giving legislators and citizens time to review and understand bills. 
  • Replacing original versions of bills with last-minute committee substitute versions. That allows little or no time for citizens to review or comment before the committee vote.
  • Holding full House or Senate floor votes the day bills get committee approval. Even when same day votes are allowed by legislative rules, that quick movement means that even the most engaged citizens may only have a couple of hours to contact their legislators.
  • Holding floor votes on free conference committee reports the day they are released. Free conference committees, formed when House and Senate cannot agree on bill wording, can add completely new provisions to bills. When they report out recommendations, both chambers usually vote on them within hours. Citizens have no time to read the new wording and give input to legislators. 
Source: “How Can They Do That? Transparency and Citizen Participation in Kentucky’s Legislative Process,” League of Women Voters of Kentucky

These maneuvers have not always been used so frequently. Our report demonstrates that in 1998, less than 5% of bills that became law were passed with these methods. However, by 2022, 32% of enacted House bills and 24% of enacted Senate bills were fast-tracked in ways that cut out the public. 

One well-known example of this too-fast process was last year’s Senate Bill 150, limiting how parents, medical providers, and schools treat transgender children and youth. On a single day, a surprise House Education Committee meeting was announced, replacement language was handed out to the Committee, the replacement was approved by the Committee, the House voted the changed bill through, and the Senate followed suit. Citizens had no time to study the changes, and even legislators were not allowed to propose any further revisions.

How it’s supposed to work. (“How Can They Do That? Transparency and Citizen Participation in Kentucky’s Legislative Process,” League of Woman Voters of Kentucky)

Passing legislation this way undermines public participation and confidence in the legislative process. When this happens, citizens may feel that the only way to be heard is through public protest and disruption. Indeed, as the substitute version of SB 150 was being voted on within hours of being introduced, protestors shouted opposition in the House chamber and were ultimately removed and arrested. Democracy can be better served by allowing many voices to be heard through established processes rather than disruptive displays. 

The League asks the General Assembly to strengthen citizens’ participation through rules that: 

  • Schedule the three bill “readings” after committee hearings. 
  • Make committee substitute bills available online at least one day before committee meetings. 
  • Allow at least one day between final committee action on bills and the House or Senate floor votes on those bills. 
  • Allow at least one day between free conference committee revisions and House/Senate floor vote. 

We also call on citizens to hold their legislators accountable to honor a fundamental principle of democracy that engages citizens. Please join us in urging legislators to stop rushing legislation and follow clear rules that support citizen participation. 

The League of Women Voters of Kentucky supports informed and active citizen participation in government, and we urge the General Assembly to restore and expand citizens’ voices in the lawmaking process.

Source: “How Can They Do That? Transparency and Citizen Participation in Kentucky’s Legislative Process,” League of Kentucky, 2023.

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Jennifer A. Jackson
Jennifer A. Jackson

Jennifer A. Jackson, M.D., is president of the League of Women Voters of Kentucky, a nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government.