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Kentucky legislature spurns rules changes sought for transparency, limiting leadership power

Republican Rep. Felicia Rabourn from Pendleton reviews legislation.
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Republican Rep. Felicia Rabourn from Pendleton filed 15 resolutions to amend the chamber rules on Tuesday.

A bipartisan effort to change procedural rules of the Kentucky General Assembly went down in defeat Tuesday with several House Republicans alleging they were threatened with retaliation by a colleague before the vote.

The Republican supermajority of each chamber passed rules nearly identical to the ones from last year, pushing aside attempts by Democrats to change course for the sake of transparency.

The minority party cited a League of Women Voters of Kentucky report showing lawmakers increasingly using tactics to fast-track bills into law with little public oversight.

But Democrats weren’t the only ones to voice concerns. Some members of the GOP caucus have also cited concerns about bill transparency and the larger accumulation of power by leadership over committee assignments.

Several GOP members told Kentucky Public Radio a Republican colleague threatened to retaliate against them with legislation in a caucus meeting on Tuesday — just before the rules resolution vote.

But that didn’t stop five House Republicans from joining the effort to reform the rules for the 2024 session, which kicked off Tuesday.

Rep. Felicia Rabourn from Pendleton was among the Republicans who pushed for changes.

She said her effort to amend the House rules was partly over transparency concerns and partly over House leadership removing six GOP members from 10 committee assignments in the previous session.

“When retaliation is made by leadership, it certainly makes you pause and reflect on how did this happen?” Rabourn asked. “How do five people have the ability to make these decisions?”

Republicans push for rule changes

In December, eight GOP House members sent a letter to leadership calling for a series of changes to chamber rules. In addition to slowing down last-minute bills, they suggested stripping leadership of the power to unilaterally remove members from committees.

Four Republican signatories to the letter were stripped of their committee assignments by leadership on the final day of the 2023 session last March. Rabourn lost three of her four committee seats saying at the time she and others were retaliated against for challenging leadership decisions on the floor during that session.

Shortly before the new procedural rules were passed in a House resolution Tuesday, Rabourn filed 15 resolutions of her own to amend the chamber rules, which closely resembled what she and other Republican lawmakers suggested in their letter.

In addition to preventing bills amended at the last minute from passing through either committees or the chamber floor without three additional days of review, Rabourn’s amendments called for decentralizing the power of leadership in several ways.

Her resolutions would have allowed committee members to choose their chairs and vote on whether members could be removed at the request of leadership. Some also allowed each member to have one “priority bill” that must be taken up in committee and create a process where a petition signed by a majority of House members could move a bill stuck in a committee to the House floor.

None of Rabourn’s resolutions were allowed to go to the House floor for a vote Tuesday, though Democrats were able to push for a floor vote on whether to table the rules resolution for the purpose of further amending it.

The vote to table the resolution failed by a wide margin, but five Republicans joined all Democrats by voting for it, including Rabourn and Rep. Josh Calloway of Irvington, a signer of the letter who was also kicked off two of his committees last year.

Shortly before leadership’s rules resolution passed, Rep. Savannah Maddox of Dry Ridge – one of four Republicans to vote against it – spoke out to say their effort to change the chamber’s rules “is not an act of aggression.”

“The concept that it is somehow an insurgency or an attack to have this discussion, to propose rules, to have that conversation is very detrimental to this process,” Maddox said.

Maddox and Rabourn are part of a small but growing faction within the House Republican caucus that break from leadership on votes — mostly on bills involving spending — and are largely based in the Northern Kentucky region.

On Wednesday, several Republican House members told Kentucky Public Radio that Rep. Ken Upchurch, a Monticello Republican, threatened in their Tuesday caucus meeting to advance legislation to toll the Brent Spence Bridge if members pursued changes to the chamber's procedural rules later that day. Upchurch is the chair of a budget subcommittee that handles funding for state transportation projects.

The same allegation was made Tuesday night in a social media post by Andrew Cooperrider, a Republican who finished second in the GOP primary for state treasurer last year. While not in the room, Cooperrider said he confirmed this through several sources.

After the publication of this story, Upchurch sent a statement through a House GOP spokeswoman saying his comments from the caucus meeting had been taken out of context.

“I gave an example of how a proposed rules change would hurt the legislative process,” Upchurch said. “Every lawmaker has the opportunity to file legislation, but the responsibility for moving a bill or resolution through the process lies with the sponsor. They must be able to make a case for their own bill to get the support of their colleagues.”

“Unfortunately, that example was taken out of context and shared only in part — and I believe intentionally in an effort to mislead the public.”

The Ohio River bridge connecting Cincinnati to northern Kentucky is set to undergo a major expansion due to more than $1 billion of federal grants, which is currently slated to be completed without tolls.

The GOP caucus members who alleged Upchurch made the threat declined to be publicly named, saying they feared retaliation.

The four Republican signatories to the December letter to leadership who eventually voted to approve the rules resolution were Reps. Steve Rawlings, Steven Doan, Marianne Proctor and Nancy Tate. Rawlings, Doan and Proctor are all from northern Kentucky counties bordering Cincinnati.

Asked after adjournment Tuesday about caucus discussion of the rules amendments suggested by the eight GOP members, Republican House Speaker David Osborne said “we're always talking about possibilities of rule changes.”

“We decided not to make those today,” Osborne said. “We'll continue to have conversations about rules as we go through the session, as we do every year.”

Democrats want to slow down fast-tracked bills

Rep. Rachel Roberts, a member of House Democratic leadership from Newport, also filed a resolution to change the chamber’s procedural rules that was not taken up for debate.

Roberts’ resolution would have required bills to be posted online a day in advance before passing out of committee and prevented bills from immediately going to a vote on the House floor after passing out of committee.

Roberts successfully called for a roll call vote on her motion to pause the passage of Republicans’ rules resolution. Democratic Rep. Rachel Roarx of Louisville cited the League of Women Voters report as proof that the content of last-minute bills are sometimes shielded from the public until after they are passed.

The reference to the outside report appeared to upset Osborne, who walked to the chamber floor to give a speech slamming it as statistically flawed and misleading. He countered that bills have moved slower since Republicans took control of the chamber in 2017.

“Not only is it a distortion, it's intellectually bankrupt and it is statistically unsound,” Osborne said.

Osborne said the League of Women Voters study was “reported as if fact and was reported without question,” though he didn’t not respond to requests for comment on it in December.

Roberts said Democrats’ experience in recent years is proof enough. Several controversial GOP bills were amended just before clearing a committee in the morning and passed through the chamber later that day – before the public could read them or drive to Frankfort to give their input.

“If we are here to create good policy, then what are we afraid of?” Roberts asked. “If we are here to create good laws, then why don't we want more vetting? Why don't we want to hear from more people?”

After the rules resolution was passed Tuesday, Maddox said the desire for more transparency in the way the House does business transcends political party, ideology and region.

“This is not just a function of the typical political rifts 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.”

In the Senate, the Democratic effort to slow down the approval of rules for the 2024 session was also rejected as the Republican resolution passed with a voice vote.

Sen. Reginald Thomas, a Lexington Democrat who chairs the minority caucus, called for delaying the vote so they could instead implement the kinds of changes suggested by the League of Women Voters’ report.

However, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown rejected that suggestion, saying Thomas should have given Republicans a “heads-up” on the changes Democrats wanted ahead of time.

This story has been updated.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.