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Kentucky legislature considering nonpartisan elections for Louisville

A two-story stone building with columns, viewed from the side. There is snow on the grass surrounding it. Another building with a tall clock tower is visible in the distance.
Roxanne Scott
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LPM
Louisville's elected leaders currently have party affiliations. A bill before the Kentucky House would make the mayor and Metro Council seats nonpartisan.

A bill filed in the Kentucky General Assembly would address what its sponsors see as issues that grew out of Louisville’s city-county merger.

House Bill 388 would make Louisville’s local elections nonpartisan, stripping candidates’ party affiliations from the ballot. The proposal would also make it easier for communities to form new independent cities within Jefferson County.

Republican sate Rep. Jason Nemes, one of the bill’s primary backers, said he thinks nonpartisan elections would force candidates to get out into the more rural and suburban areas of the county to “hunt votes.”

“They’re going to have to understand the traffic concerns in Valley Station and the environmental concerns in Eastwood,” Nemes said.

Moving Louisville Metro to nonpartisan elections may face pushback in the GOP-dominated General Assembly, despite being sponsored by a slate of local Republicans.

Leading Senate Republicans recently proposed a bill to institute partisan elections for the Kentucky Board of Education. And last year, Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer proposed making all local elections in Kentucky partisan. That bill ultimately failed.

Metro Council President Markus Winkler, a Democrat, said he’s open to the change. Winkler said he doesn’t think it will have an impact on most districts in Louisville.

“If you’re in a majority Democratic district, you’re probably still going to elect Democrats,” he said. “If you’re in a majority Republican district, you’re probably still going to elect Republicans.”

Where it could have an impact, Winkler said, is in districts where Republicans and Democrats are more evenly split — or in a close mayoral election. In those cases, the minority party would likely benefit, he said.

Reworking the rules of merger

Much of HB 388 comes from recommendations made by the Comprehensive Review Commission last year. The General Assembly created the commission to look at the successes and failures of the 2003 merger between the City of Louisville and Jefferson County.

The commission, which Nemes co-chaired, made a number of recommendations to the state legislature on how it can improve the operations of the merged Louisville Metro Government. Moving to nonpartisan elections was one of them.

Metro Council Members Cindi Fowler and Jecorey Arthur, who were chosen to represent local Democrats, supported the proposal.

A graphic that says "How merger reshaped Louisville" and shows a map of Louisville
Mindy Fulner
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LPM
It's now 20 years since Louisville and Jefferson County merged governments. We took a look at a handful of the challenges the newly merged government faced and how it managed them. Explore how merger affects Louisvillians' lives today.

The group also looked at how emergency medical services are used across the county.

Louisville EMS is supposed to provide emergency medical care and transportation to all Jefferson County residents. But since merger, communities outside the Watterson Expressway have created suburban fire districts, which levy extra taxes to support additional EMS and firefighting services.

Nemes argued the system amounts to a double tax on suburban residents.

“Suburbs are getting soaked with the cost,” he said. “[Louisville EMS] is not doing the job they’re supposed to be doing, so we’ve had to create a new system while still paying for the first system.”

HB 388 would require Louisville Metro to reimburse suburban fire departments whenever they respond to an EMS call within the boundaries of the old City of Louisville, now known as the Urban Services District. Nemes noted that the funding Louisville Metro would use for that would come from taxes paid by residents throughout the county.

“So, [suburban taxpayers] are kind of going to be reimbursing themselves in some way, but the hope is that Louisville EMS will start doing its job and that Louisville Metro will start investing in Louisville EMS,” he said.

Last year, the Comprehensive Review Commission recommended a more severe step: Limiting Louisville EMS to the USD, with urban residents solely responsible for funding it.

Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg opposed that recommendation. In a September letter to the group, Greenberg blamed the lack of ambulance availability county-wide on “a major staffing shortage” at Louisville EMS.

“This proposal would raise taxes for thousands of Louisville families and further fracture emergency services in the Metro region,” Greenberg told LPM News in a followup statement.

On Tuesday, Greenberg had a more muted response, saying through a spokesperson that his administration is still reviewing HB 388.

“My hope is that through continued conversations we can find a balanced compromise that serves all Louisville residents,” he said.

Greenberg did not directly address LPM News’ questions about whether he supports nonpartisan local elections.

HB 388 was filed last week and hasn’t been assigned yet to a committee.

The bill would also make it easier to form new cities in Jefferson County, a move the General Assembly passed a law to allow last year.

Right now, residents have to get signatures from 66% of eligible voters living within the proposed boundaries to form a new city. HBl 388 would lower the threshold to 60% of voters who participated in the last presidential election.

For example, a new city that includes 40,000 voting-age residents would need 26,400 signatures to pass. But that threshold would fall under HB 388, since Kentucky’s voter turnout in the last presidential election was 60%. So, if 24,000 eligible voters cast a ballot in 2020, residents seeking to form a new city would only need 14,400 signatures.

HB 388 would also require Louisville Metro to spend more state road funding on projects in suburban parts of the county, and ensure city boards and commissions have geographic and political diversity. Metro has more than sixty boards and commissions that deal with everything from air pollution to zoning appeals.

Kentucky Public Radio Enterprise Statehouse Reporter Joe Sonka contributed to this story.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.
Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.