Kentucky House leaves its rules unchanged, despite calls for less control, more transparency

By: - January 2, 2024 7:04 pm

Rep. Felicia Rabourn, R-Pendleton, looks over her bills before filing them with the House clerk on the first day of the 2024 Kentucky General Assembly. (LRC Public Information)

FRANKFORT — Despite recent calls by several Republicans to loosen House leadership’s control of the legislative process, the House voted Tuesday to make no changes in its rules.

Four Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the rules resolution, which was sponsored by House Speaker David Osborne and adopted by a vote of  72-23. The only change from the earlier rules was updating the year to 2024. 

Ahead of this year’s regular session, which began Tuesday, some GOP House members had called for changes to the rules, including adding rank and file representatives to the powerful Rules Committee which is now made up of only leadership.

“The initiative behind this was basically to restore the power back to the elected representatives within this chamber so that they could be a solid voice for the constituents that they represent,” said Rep. Felicia Rabourn, R-Pendleton, who had urged rule changes to open up the process. 

Among the changes Rabourn and the others sought: Guaranteeing that every representative would have at least one bill heard in committee, election of committee chairs by committee members instead of appointment by leadership, and assurances that a discharge petition supported by 25 of the 100 House members would move a bill to the floor for a vote. The lawmakers also asked for advance notice and some recourse for members when leaders are removing them from a committee,

Rabourn  was among a small group of Republicans removed from their House committees at the end of the last legislative session after they bucked leadership. Rabourn filed resolutions to change the rules Tuesday, but it’s unclear when or if they will come up for consideration. 

Rabourn said after the House adjourned Tuesday afternoon that her resolutions, which have gained some support from a few other GOP House members, were aimed at “membership empowerment” and that conversations about passing them have started.

Savannah Maddox (LRC Public Information)

Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge, who also spoke with reporters after the House adjourned, said the alternative rules had been available to the Republican caucus for a month. The rules backed by House leadership and passed Tuesday were not given to members until Tuesday, she said.

“Although we were left with the impression that, of course, there’s going to be quite a bit of friction about introducing these rules, that this is not just a function of the typical political riffs that you would anticipate in terms of the House majority versus the House minority,” Maddox said. “These are folks from all political ideologies and walks of life who are looking to return to a process that reflects a representative form of government, that transcends political party, that transcends ideology, and frankly, it transcends region.” 

Maddox also challenged the rules resolution on the floor. In a speech, she said rules proposed by Rabourn and others were not “an insurgency or an attack.” 

Both Rabourn and Maddox were part of a group of GOP lawmakers who had called on House leadership to make changes to the rules in a letter last month.

Democrats, who hold 20 seats to the Republicans’ 80, were also not satisfied with the current House rules, although for different reasons. House Minority Floor Leader Derrick Graham made a floor speech criticizing House rules in recent sessions. 

Derrick Graham (LRC Public Information)

Graham, who recently announced he will not seek reelection when his term ends at the end of this year, said when Democrats were the majority party, their leadership shared procedures with minority leaders. 

“The rules reflect not just our procedures on the floor, but how open those proceedings will be to the public, to those who are in the media, and to the stakeholders that these bills and these laws will eventually have to determine, and how people live here in our commonwealth,” Graham said.

Graham cited a November report by the League of Women Voters of Kentucky that found the public is being excluded from participating in the legislative process because important bills are frequently fast tracked via legislative maneuvers. The League recommended rules changes that would restore transparency to the legislative process. Graham quoted a phrase adopted by former Republican President Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.” 

House Democratic Whip Rachel Roberts made a motion for the House to table the rules resolution, but the motion was defeated. Roberts is also not seeking reelection this year. 

Osborne, the Republican House speaker, granted a brief recess for review of the rules after Graham’s remarks. However, back in session, Osborne criticized the League of Women Voters report and took issue with the scope of the data used as the report only reviewed selected budget sessions. 

“The disagreement with the League of Women Voters report is that it was reported inaccurately, because they claim that transparency has decreased when in actuality transparency has increased dramatically,” Osborne said in a Tuesday afternoon press conference. “So, it is just an incorrect conclusion.” 

David Osborne (LRC Public Information)

When asked about rules suggestions from the small group of Republicans, Osborne said rules are always being discussed within the caucus and while changes were not made Tuesday, conversations will continue. 

While speaking with reporters, Maddox said she has sought rules changes since being elected to the House because “we have centralized what was designed to be a representative form of government” and power should be equal for constituents in each county represented in the House. 

“Increasing transparency is also enforcing accountability,” Rabourn added. “And a lot of that comes from what we do here every year, pushing amendments and fighting for the bigger cause. So, transparency and accountability are certainly hand in hand.” 

The Senate’s discussion on its rules was more brief, but, like Graham, Democratic Caucus Chair Reggie Thomas of Lexington noted that the Senate’s rules do not increase transparency for the public. 

Liam Niemeyer and Sarah Ladd contributed to this report. 

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McKenna Horsley
McKenna Horsley

McKenna Horsley covers state politics for the Kentucky Lantern. She previously worked for newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia, and Frankfort, Kentucky. She is from northeastern Kentucky.