Republican Legislators Wage Unprecedented War on Public Input, Transparency
FRANKFORT, Ky. (Feb. 15, 2022) – Only six weeks into the 2022 legislative session, the Republican supermajority in the Kentucky General Assembly has declared an unprecedented war on public input and transparency, disregarding constituents and drawing outrage from transparency watchdogs, free press advocates and even conservative commentators.
“In another series of partisan power grabs, the Republican supermajority is waging an unprecedented war against public input and transparency that started before they even gaveled in for this legislative session,” said Chair Colmon Elridge of the Kentucky Democratic Party. “At every turn, they have gone to unprecedented lengths to simultaneously silence input from the public and lawmakers sent to Frankfort to represent them. These brazen power grabs are not an attack on Democrats – they’re an attack on democracy and the people they’re supposed to represent.”
In just over a month, the Republican supermajority has:
Introduced redistricting maps at the last minute with no public input and rammed them through in days with no public comment;
Changed the rules to limit debate and sneak through bills without notice;
Have lied repeatedly about their actions and who had input;
Introduced legislation to limit public information about public officials and create grounds to sue those who share the information;
Restricted when Senate Judiciary members can speak and requires comments be in the form of a question. If they violate these rules that silence their own members, Chair Whitney Westerfield said he will not call on them again.
Attempting to Shred the Open Records Act
The latest in a series of unconstitutional anti-transparency bills from Republican Sen. Danny Carroll in recent years, Senate Bill 63 would seal off “personally identifiable information” about any government employees deemed “public officers,” not only enabling agencies to withhold public records about abuses of power such as police misconduct, but also opening the door to sue journalists who publish these details, as longtime First Amendment attorney Jon Fleischaker told the Courier-Journal.
The Kentucky Press Association said in a statement that Carroll’s anti-transparency bill is a “broadside attack on the First Amendment.”
As Amye Bensenhaver, co-director of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, told the Courier-Journal, personal privacy is already well-protected under current open records law. Bensenhaver told the Courier-Journal, “This bill cannot survive any kind of challenge.”
Even the conservative editorial board at the Bowling Green Daily News, which consistently endorses Republican candidates, blasted SB 63, calling Carroll’s bill part of a “seemingly endless pursuit of Kentucky Republicans to mock the concept of public transparency, to weaken the press and to generally disregard basic freedoms afforded by the First Amendment.”
Suggesting that “many Republicans have become so intolerant of scrutiny and accountability that they are willing to legislate against transparency and the First Amendment,” and describing the trend as “beyond tiresome,” “starkly un-American,” and “profoundly disappointing and frightening,” the Bowling Green Daily News writes:
“Most members of this editorial board lean right politically, but as journalists, we cannot and will not support any assault on transparency and press freedom. We often disagree with the editorial stances of many media outlets in Kentucky – just as many of them disagree with ours – but we would never seek to silence them or to make it more difficult for them to carry out their vital roles under the Constitution. Politicians who lack the maturity or the backbone to deal with criticism or opposing viewpoints should leave public office altogether, instead of trying to rig the game in order to make their jobs more comfortable.”
Shutting Down Debate at the State Capitol
In an unprecedented move to limit debate and silence the minority party, the House Republican supermajority rushed through new rules on the first day of session, allowing them to completely cut off floor debate if 60 members approve and giving Republican House Speaker David Osborne the power to limit how long members have to explain their votes.
House Democratic Whip Angie Hatton described the rules change as “a nail in the coffin of what’s left in our democracy,” telling fellow legislators, “My constituents deserve better. They did not elect me and send me down here to sit and be quiet.”
As part of the same rules changes, House Republicans also removed requirements for public notice on the posting of bills for committee hearings, giving themselves the power to ram legislation through committee without ever informing the public first.
At the same time Republican legislators are attempting to require public input for school board meetings, they’re writing different rules for themselves.
Bensenhaver wrote in an op-ed that these changes “may impair the public’s ability to monitor the movement of bills — further undermining foundational principles of representative government and the public’s right to know.”
And in the Senate, the attacks on transparency are even more egregious: Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield effectively banned debate in his committee entirely.
Westerfield’s new rule bans Senate Judiciary members from commenting on a bill unless they’re voting on it, a move longtime Capitol reporters noted they’ve never seen before.
Last-Minute Redistricting Rollout Without Public Input
Instead of seeking public input on new district maps that will affect how Kentuckians are represented for the next decade, Republicans in the House unveiled their maps before a holiday weekend five days before the 2022 session began. Senate Republicans released the maps for the state Senate and Congress even later, five days before they passed them.
In less than a week, Republican lawmakers rammed their maps through both chambers of the legislature, meaning Kentuckians had only days to understand significant changes to their legislative and congressional districts before they were passed. The Republicans did not even release the demographic data about the districts until after they passed the maps.
Democratic Rep. Buddy Wheatley, who has sponsored legislation that would create an independent redistricting commission, said Kentuckians deserve more input in the redistricting process and more time to understand their new districts.
This rushed rollout came after Kentucky Republicans spent months drawing up their new district maps behind closed doors, keeping the maps secret and refusing to engage in good faith with community organizations like the Louisville Urban League, according to a statement from Louisville Urban League CEO Sadiqa Reynolds.