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Kentucky legislature reshapes Louisville’s future, ending partisan mayoral elections

Louisville sunset
Ryan Van Velzer

The Kentucky General Assembly has voted to end some partisan elections, freeze zoning ordinances and explore the breakup of Jefferson County Public Schools.

The Kentucky General Assembly passed two measures back to back that would have major implications for Louisville — both largely without votes from Louisville lawmakers.

The House gave final passage to a massive bill largely designed to address issues GOP lawmakers have with the distribution of resources between Jefferson County’s suburbs and urban core.

House Bill 388 creates nonpartisan elections for the offices of the Metro Council and mayor. Last minute amendments added to the bill also change the Louisville Metro Police accountability structure and pause any efforts to reform Louisville zoning ordinances.

The bill will go to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk, and he’ll have 10 days to veto, sign or allow it to become law without his signature. If he were to veto it, the legislature would have the opportunity to override that veto with just a constitutional majority — which is likely given the Republican supermajority.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Senate officially created a task force that would explore “alternatives” to JCPS’ governance structure — one of those options being breaking up the district — with most Louisville lawmakers voting against the resolution.

Both bills have been heavily debated, with most Democrats firmly opposing. Louisville Democratic Rep. Rachel Roarx characterized HB 388 as “another in the war on Louisville” while Democrats in the Senate questioned why the state legislature is so keen to focus on one particular city.

Merger commission legislation

The Louisville bill makes significant changes to Louisville Metro Government services freezing city zoning laws and changing the review process for police complaints.

One of the most controversial components of the bill would strip party affiliations from Jefferson County ballots for Metro Council or mayoral elections. GOP bill sponsor Rep. Jason Nemes from Middletown has said he believes the change could force mayoral candidates to hunt for votes outside the urban core.

Rep. Pam Stevenson, a Louisville Democrat, said she believes Louisvillians don’t want nonpartisan elections, and the bill reflects discussions with Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg rather than residents.

“You don't work with the mayor to change the dynamics of the city. You work with the citizens to change the dynamics of the city,” Stevenson said. “So don't get in a little closet with other people like you and come up with something for you that's not for the people.”

Greenberg did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

He has previously provided a tepid response to the bill, saying “My hope is that through continued conversations we can find a balanced compromise that serves all Louisville residents.”

In a previous request, Greenberg did not directly address LPM’s questions about whether he supports nonpartisan local elections.

Earlier in the week, GOP Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown said he was voting for the bill “out of respect for” Greenberg, adding that the mayor was involved in discussions on the measure.

Democratic Rep. Al Gentry from Louisville said he doesn’t take issue with nonpartisan elections in and of themselves.

“What I am against is the fact that we just changed decades and decades of precedent in Jefferson County with only 25% of the [lawmakers] who represent the people of Jefferson County,” Gentry said. “And to me, that's a travesty to the people’s voices.”

Opponents also expressed some concerns with last-minute changes to the police accountability process. Louisville Democratic Rep. Keturah Herron said she hoped the changes wouldn't get in the way of holding officers accountable for abuses of power.

“I just hope that as we are doing things to ensure that our communities are safe and holding our community members responsible, that we can also keep that same standard or actually a higher standard for our law enforcement,” Herron said.

A taskforce on JCPS’ structure

Under the resolution the legislature adopted Thursday, the task force will review the impact of and efficiency of the JCPS Board of Education, the benefits of creating new districts and explore the options for reorganizing the district.

Four of its members would be chosen by Republican leadership and another two would be chosen by Democrats. It would also include the state auditor or a designee, Mayor Greenberg or a designee, two current or recent JCPS parents, a person with experience in finance or business operations, a JCPS teacher and a JCPS principal.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Tichenor from Smithfield said there have been “several things” recently that “brought concern” to the legislature about the governance structure of JCPS.

“We feel it necessary to do an evaluation to make sure, as we are constitutionally charged to do, that this school district and all students are being served and educated in operating our schools in an efficient way,” Tichenor said.

Democrats argued that these are decisions that should be left up to local governance and the state government should not dictate on the fate of JCPS. Sen. Karen Berg, a Louisville Democrat, said she believes education needs a lot more attention and funding from the state.

“But this is not how we're going about doing this. This is an intentional attack on Jefferson County Public Schools, by politicians who for the most part, only represent small portions of the district,” Berg said.

There is only one Republican in the Senate who solely represents Jefferson County — Louisville Sen. Julie Raque Adams voted in favor of the legislation, as did every other Republican in the Senate.

Sen. Thayer, the GOP floor leader, said he generally does not like creating more task forces, although he voted yes on the measure.

“I want to be clear, and on the record: I would vote today to break it up. I would vote today to break it up into multiple school districts,” Thayer said. “ But I defer to my friends in the Jefferson County delegation who suggest we have this task force first.”

This story has been updated to include additional comments from lawmakers.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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.

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