Two Guides to the Kentucky General Assembly: With Apologies to Niccolò Machiavelli and ABC's Children's Programming Division


In its 2008 Kentucky General Assembly Preview, the Courier-Journal has created a one-page visual guide to “How bills become law in Kentucky” < > that evokes the 1970s School-House Rock classic, “I’m Just a Bill.” However laudable its effort to simplify, it omits some of the unique features and quirks of the Kentucky rules and thus conveys too much similarity to the rules of the national Congress. These rules give Kentucky politics color and allow old legislative hands to concoct byzantine legislative strategies that evoke reactions ranging curses of anger to sighs of admiration.

Here are a few areas where the arcane passes through profane on the way to profound:


CALENDAR. The 1891 Kentucky constitutional framers and succeeding amenders have worked hard to limit the damage done by roving bands of lawmakers by strictly limiting the time that the good townsfolk of Frankfort are subject to their reign of terror (typically embodied in cheap suits, bad cologne and even worse tipping). Even-year sessions (like this year’s) convene on the first Monday of January and meet for 60 legislative days and must complete their work by April 15. (Odd-year sessions have 30 legislative days and must be completed by March 30). A “legislative day” is a day that the legislative leadership has designated as a day of official business. Weekend days and holidays are typically not employed for this dirty work. The legislature creates a calendar that spreads the allotted legislative days out, usually reserving a few days at the end to deal with gubernatorial vetoes. The 2008 session calendar can be found on the General Assembly’s website.


MAJORITY RULES. A majority is not always a “majority” under the capitol dome. An ordinary bill passes by a simple majority of those voting (so long as that number exceeds 2/5ths of elected members). Ky. Const. § 46. The 2/5ths rule doesn’t come up much, but it is not irrelevant because the constitution sets a quorum as a majority of the numbers elected (a so-called absolute majority) Ky. Const. § 37. For example, the Senate elects 38 members, making the quorum 20. Suppose a bill appears to pass with a bare majority of 11-9 with the minimum constitution quorum of 20. The bill fails because it doesn’t reach the 2/5ths rule's margin, which is 16. (The constitutional minimum for the House is 41). Reaching a quorum isn’t usually a big deal but in the 19th century leaders were known to send men out to troll the bars for drunken lawmakers to make the quorum (and to bar the doors and windows to keep it).


MONEY BILLS. Since this is a budget year, it is important to note that the constitution provides different rules for money bills. A bill for “the appropriation of money or the creation of debt” (1) must originate in the House and (2) needs an absolute majority of all elected members Ky. Const. § 46. (Courts have ruled that provision does not apply to bills authorizing local entities to raise funds through fees or taxes because such funds generated do not enter the state treasury). Ordinarily, a budget is agreed to in the even-year session and runs two years, although in two recent sessions the legislature adjourned without passing a budget so following sessions had to clean up the mess. By a term of art it is “biennial budget” and typically each budget year is known as a “biennium.” Thus a typical statement might be “well, it the budget will pinch a bit in the first biennium, but as revenues increase in the second biennium ... [insert unrealistic expectation here].”


VETO/EFFECTIVE DATE OF LAWS. The governor has ten days (excepting Sundays) to consider each bill. He can sign it, veto it, or let it become law without his signature by doing nothing. The legislature can override a governor’s veto by absolute majority vote in both houses. However, since the number of days of a session is set by the constitution, the legislature must reserve at least one “veto day” in its calendar beyond this ten-day period or forfeit this right. (It usually sets two to be safe). Unlike the federal executive, the governor has a broad line-item veto power on the budget and can delete words, phrases and lines to trim fat or, occasionally, make mischief. Ky. Const. § 88. Laws are effective 90 days after the adjournment of the Kentucky General Assembly, unless the law is designated as emergency legislation (an act that needs an absolute majority of both houses). In that case, the law is effective upon the governor’s signature. Ky. Const. § 55.


GERMANENESS. One striking difference between federal and state legislation is that the Kentucky constitution specifically requires that all provisions of a bill “shall relate to [no] more than one subject, and that shall be expressed in the title.” Ky. Const. § 51. This means that the “omnibus legislation” common in the U.S. Congress is unknown. Kentucky appellate courts have been asked to determine the ontological question of whether the provisions of a law truly constitute one subject dozens of times but have only rarely struck down laws on these grounds. Thus the courts have upheld the blanket adoption of model laws on the same subject, Davidson v. American Freightways, Inc., 25 S.W.3d 94 (Ky. 2000) but they have decided that including a minumum wage provision for bartenders to an alcohol beverage contraol act goes too far, Lewis v. Captain's Quarters Inc, 655 S.W.2d 26 (Ky. Ct. App. 1983).


CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS. With the possibility of a constitutional amendment allowing casino gambling on the agenda, it’s worth noting that such a measure would require an affirmative vote of 2/3rds of all members in both houses to get on the ballot. Only four constitutional amendments can be offered to the voters at one time. The ratification by the voters must take place “at the next general election for members of the [Kentucky] House of Representatives." (This means even-year elections, so the gaming measure must be on the ballot this year or 2010 if Beshear wants to passed before the end of his first term). Amendments must relate to a single subject but can “modify as many articles and as many sections” as needed to “accomplish the objectives of the amendment.” Ky. Const. § 256. There is a strong legislative custom to limit such measures to only two per session, with each house originating one amendment. (Keep in mind that the limit is four on the ballot, not per session; two measures from both the even and odd years could add up to four constitutional amendments that voters have to read, digest and vote on—all usually in the morning (before coffee) or in the evening after a long day of work). A simple majority of Kentuckians passes the amendment; unlike some state charters, there is no rule that any number of counties must ratify the act.


FOLLOWING THE FUN. The two remaining major Kentucky newspapers (R.I.P. fair Kentucky Post) do a pretty good job of covering the “leg” (pronounced “ledge”). The Courier-Journal’s Legislature section on the web collects the excellent work of its Frankfort reporters (Stephenie Steitzer, Tom Loftus, and Joe Gerth) and its Politics in Kentucky blog adds additional content. Lexington Herald-Leader’s State Government page and its PolWatchers blog featuring Lex Herald scribes, Ryan Alessi, Jack Brammer and John Stamper regularly match, if not surpass, CJ coverage. (See also columnist Larry Dale Keeling's Kentucky Kurmudgeon) WHAS 11 Political Blog features the voice of Mark Hebert, one of the best political reporters in the state (latest scoop: Ann Northrup considering run against Cong. JohnYarmuth; best scoop: Governor Paul Patton's affair with state-regulated nursing home operator). Of course, no government-geek in Kentucky misses KET's Comment on Kentucky Friday night or Sunday at noon--unless they are TIVOing or plan to catch the Podcast on KET's website.


By the way, YouTube has a version of "I'm Just a Bill" here. Fair warning, it doesn't look like the copyright holder is the person posting it so it may be gone tomorrow.