Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Kentucky Politics and Government by Penny Miller (Book Review #25 of 2015)

Kentucky Politics and Government: Do We Stand United? (Politics and Governments of the American States)
This is a textbook that discusses the history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, in particular its political institutions. It was (or perhaps still is) required reading for some political science courses at the University of Kentucky. It was published in 1994 after several reforms had taken place under the Brereton Jones administration, but little has changed in the last 20 years sine publication. This book should be required reading for all elected representatives to the Kentucky General Assembly as well as anyone who works in the Executive Cabinet or Legislative Research Commission (LRC). There is a wealth of helpful information about the evolution of Kentucky's constitution, its tax system, and its political culture. (The other prerequisite is Night Comes to the Cumberlands.)

I took several pages of notes and will keep this book as a reference in my current job. I personally found it helpful to see the evolution of the tax code, how we got to where we are today. The biggest epiphany came in the final chapter looking at the 1993 health care reform crusade led by Gov. Jones, which was basically Romneycare long before Jonathan Gruber and Mitt Romney. I'm amazed that the comparison does not come up more (see below).

"Politics is the damndest in Kentucky" is an oft-quoted line by poet James Mulligan delivered in a 1902 banquet for members of the KY General Assembly.
"The landscape is the grandest - and
Politics - the damnedest
In Kentucky."

Those of us who score bills and watch the political point-scoring in Kentucky know this adage to be true.

"Kentucky's political elite govern through family ties or position," and several names have long existed in the legislature. Kentucky basketball unites the state to a great extent, as does the influence of Southern Baptists ("A legislator in Frankfort can hear a Baptist voice a long way," quoted from a 1992 Herald-Leader article). In other ways, Kentucky is highly divided with distinct geographical and economic regions. There are 2,000 units of local government and more counties per square mile than any other U.S. state (third in counties, total). Each county has constitutional offices that may not have power but statutorily must be filled. This sets the stage for "little kingdoms," rife with waste and corruption. Republicans have historically dominated the southeastern part of the state, while the western portion has leaned Democratic in party (but not in most values) since the painful Reconstruction era.

Kentucky was an early battleground for state rights, with Thomas Jefferson penning portions of its original constitution and resolutions condeming the Alien and Sedition Acts. Kentucky was technically neutral in the Civil War but had a Confederate government in exile when many counties seceded and later found "its heroes and postwar character in the Confederate cause." Hatfields-McCoys and other feuds spread out of civil war rivalries, and Appalachia was fairly strong Republican stronghold of Big Coal until FDR's New Deal (swinging back strongly Republican only recently in the 2014 Senate race).

One amusing quote is from the 1890s: "Legislation was so sloppily drafted that it became the object of public ridicule." Kentucky's constitution has stood since 1891, while amended several times Kentucky voters have five times rejected an entirely new document. Kentucky's first lottery was used to raise funds for Transylvania University and throughout the 1800s before the 1891 constitution banned them (before the 1990 amendment during the Wikinson administration). The first Republican governor was elected in 1895 due to division among Democrats into Populists and Democratic groups. In 1899, Democrat William Goebel earned Kentucky the distinction of having the only sitting governor assassinated, by Republicans angry at his populist anti-railroad and free silver positions.

At the time of publishing, Kentucky's legislature still met on a biennial basis, making it harder to govern professionally. The legislature passes 1/3 of all proposed compared to 4-6% by Congress (not sure what the numbers are now). The 1992 General Assembly filed 1,378 bills where as the 2015 short session filed over 1,500. The book contains many demographic comparisons of the makeup of the legislative body over the years. Before there was the "golden greed bill" regarding state pensions in 2005, there was the "greed bill of 1982."

The budget process has evolved from being completely Governor-led in the 1960s to being a tug-of-war with the legislature. Imagine, the 1966 budget bill was presented by the governor, passed within days, with no dissent recorded. Miller explains the evolution of the LRC and how various administrations changed the makeup of the Cabinet. In 1950, the gas tax was the largest producer of state revenue at $35.1 million, compared to just $5.5 million for property taxes. One of the most pitched battles of the 2015 General Assembly dealt with whether to "freeze the floor" on the gasoline tax to keep it from shrinking further.

Federal aid to Kentucky has grown from 1% of state revenue in 1890 to 34.3% in 1968 (LBJ's War on Poverty) to 24.4% in 1990. The Appalachian Regional Commission has long spend millions in Kentucky on highways, area development, and various economic development projects-- with little lasting impact to show for it.

Kentucky's Supreme Court has had a heavy hand in how much power locals have. For example, the 1985 Toyota tax credits were on face unconstitutional. The 1891 constitution had been written with a fairly Progressive anti-railroad sentiment. But the court upheld them because it served "a public purpose" for "relief of unemployment," a broad ruling that has led to many more tax credits for businesses. Likewise, the Lexington-Fayette County merger was allowed by the Supreme Court, and since the 1980s things have shifted in locals' favor. In 2014-2015, counties are moving on minimum wage, right to work laws, etc. and it remains to be seen how the courts decide in these cases.

The various personalities of governors are also highlighted. Happy Chandler was a fascinating character. Wallace Wilkinson is vilified by Miller as a populist mistake (the book was published while the FBI's BOPTROT sting was still unfolding). Brereton Jones gets the most positive ink for reorganizing government, fighting for health care reform, and bringing consensus-building leadership. The legislature took on reforms intended to curb corruption and influence during the Jones administration as well.

In 1992, there were 450,000 Kentuckians not covered by insurance and Gov. Jones called a special session in 1993 to deal with it. His recommendations, from two large panels studying the problem, look a lot like what would be later known as Romneycare: 
1. "Managed competition" among health care providers, not a single-payer approach. 
2. All health plans in Kentucky would be required to offer certain minimum level of benefits. 
3. An employer mandate. A tax of 3.75% of payrolls for not insuring employees. Subsidies for "vulnerable" small businesses. 
4. Creation of a "megapool" - state and local gov't employees, unemployed, self-employed, prisoners in same minimum package. ($2 million state pool operated by state government.)
Present and future Medicaid recipients would go into the megapool. Employers who did not wish to purchase their own insurance might participate in the megapool, making it a HICCUP (health purchasing insurance cooprative). 
There was even an agreement on tort reform to limit lawsuits. 

Eventually, business lobbyists and some hospitals killed the reform efforts. One imagine Gov. Jones was later envious of Gov. Beshear's ability to move with the Obama Administration to expand Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky by executive order only.

There is much more in this book about coal, health and Medicaid, education, race relations, etc. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

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