The voters have spoken.
They want politically divided state government for at least the remainder of this year, which includes the critical final weeks of the current General Assembly’s budget session.
With Democrats winning three of four seats in Tuesday’s special elections, the party of President Barack Obama and House Speaker Greg Stumbo scored a small net increase over the political control it held before November’s election.
Democrat Jeff Taylor’s 18-point victory over Republican Roller Dome Fun Plex owner Walker Thomas in the 8th District race to replace Democrat John Tilley, whom Gov. Matt Bevin chose to head the justice cabinet, is one of the reasons Tuesday for the most part belonged to Dems.
Taylor got help from the White House in the form of robo-calls. Good for him! How many state lawmakers can lay claim to getting help from the President in their campaigns?
A more important question is: what now?
Will House Democratic leaders finally meet the supersized multitasking demands incumbent upon them – of working with a Republican Senate and governor to pass a responsible two-year $22 billion budget while also addressing the nation’s worst state public-pension crisis without raising taxes, cutting spending, raiding the commonwealth’s “Rainy Day” fund – which Bevin proposed increasing – or plunging the commonwealth deeper in debt?
“Just Say No,” the well-known mantra created by the former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who recently died, might work in campaigns for political office and against some illegal drugs, but it’s an intolerable substitute for the tough slog of governing.
It certainly does nothing to persuade state workers and retirees that meaningful action is planned to ensure the continued solvency of the Kentucky Employees Retirement System, which now is barely 17-percent funded.
If Stumbo hinders the budget process from moving forward simply because he wants to deny Bevin some kind of political victory, Democrats will only be able to testify on the campaign trail: “We opposed Bevin and his ideas. We stood in the way of badly needed reforms to our education, health care and pension systems because we didn’t want the Republican governor to notch a win. We opposed Bevin. We have no earthly idea how we’re going to pay for the commonwealth’s huge Medicaid expansion, but we protected the status quo – and we opposed Bevin.”
Such an approach is downright unacceptable to reasonable Kentuckians who tolerate a certain amount of political shenanigans on the campaign trail but firmly reject governing platforms built around obstructionism.
I wonder if the President might be willing to make another round of robo-calls to remind Stumbo and the Democrats: it’s not enough to simply oppose the governor’s approach on the budget; they have a constitutional duty to present their own ideas.
But if these House leaders attempt to take the easy way out by proposing a plan that taxes, spends or borrows more to fix Kentucky’s budget situation, the governor should keep the promise he firmly laid down in his budget speech by finding the fattest, inkiest veto pen available and using it.
The temptation for House Republicans, meanwhile, will be to alternatively wring – and then sit on – their hands, claiming: “there’s little we can do since we aren’t the majority party.”
Instead, this is the time for GOP House leaders to pump up the volume of their bully pulpit’s boom box and constantly – and very loudly and publicly – push and prod the majority party by forcing, demanding and remaining unyielding in their insistence that the entire House get serious about doing the people’s work.
Divided government – currently the political makeup of 19 states’ governments – can work when both parties commit to creating an environment in which all participants feel the burden of governing responsibly and have a stake in getting things – primarily passage of a responsible budget – done.
Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.