COMMENTARY

Eyes on House lawmakers as they ponder future of $13.5M perk

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Most Kentuckians may not realize it, but they are picking up a $13.5 million tab to ensure that 100 state representatives don’t have to risk their seats if they run for higher offices.

Individually, it’s quite the perk – $135,000 for everyone serving in Kentucky’s House of Representatives.

That hefty expense would go away under legislation that has already cleared the Senate. Lots of eyes are watching to see if House lawmakers can look beyond their own self-interests and pass Senate Bill 5, a measure that Georgetown Republican Damon Thayer has been trying to get through the Legislature for years.

The problem seems to be that the legislation is less than flashy. In fact, it’s one of those bills that, on the surface, causes most people’s eyes to glaze over. It calls for moving Kentucky’s elections for governor, attorney general, state auditor, secretary of state, treasurer and agriculture commissioner to even-numbered years, so that they appear on the same ballot as the presidential race.

The measure calls for an amendment to the state Constitution to move the elections. Too many Kentuckians yawn at that point and lose interest. After all, they think, why does it matter?

Well, it matters … in many ways.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, the Taylor Mill Republican who sponsored the bill this year, talks a lot about how much money such a move would save. But his colleague, Sen. Wil Schroder, R-Wilder, said the rationale for the legislation goes far beyond the financial savings.

Schroder predicts moving the state races would almost double voter participation. The numbers support his prediction, considering only 31 percent of Kentucky voters turned out for the last governor’s race while 60 percent cast ballots in the last presidential election.

Thayer has made strong arguments for the change for at least a decade, and has been able to get similar proposals through the Republican-controlled Senate in the past, only to have them die in the House.

Democrats used to get the blame for that when they held majority control of the House. The fear was that moving the elections would put Democratic candidates at a disadvantage, given Kentucky voters’ proclivity to vote Republican in federal races.

Now, with the GOP controlling the House, the proposal’s passage still is anything but assured. Here’s why: The way things stand now, if House lawmakers want to run for governor or any other constitutional office, they can do so without having to give up their legislative seats. That's a benefit that's hard for politicians to surrender.

To be clear, the change also would affect half of the state’s 38 Senate lawmakers who would run in years when presidential candidates are on the ballot. Still, they approved it overwhelmingly, 31-4.

If the measure ends up getting through the House, it would then be put on the ballot in 2020 for Kentucky voters to ratify or reject.

The question that would appear on the ballot would ask: "Are you in favor of holding the election of all statewide constitutional officers in even-numbered years beginning in 2028, which will save substantial state and local funds?"

If approved by voters, elections for Kentucky’s constitutional officers would move from 2027 to 2028, far enough into the future so that the change would affect no one currently running for any of the state offices.

A fiscal statement prepared by the Legislative Research Commission put the savings at $13.5 million for local governments. The bill’s sponsor offered an even higher estimate on overall savings – $15.5 million.

This election bill was the first to pass the Senate this year, a sign of the importance leadership in that chamber places on it. While they talk up the financial savings, they’re even more excited about the prospect of having twice as many voters going to the polls, especially considering the historic voting trends of those voters when choosing a president.

Out in the state, local officials, especially county clerks, favor the proposal, realizing they’d not only save big money but would also avoid the headache and hassle of the additional election. The fact is, elections aren’t easily orchestrated, and being able to consolidate two major elections into one makes great sense to the people at the local level who actually get it done.

All this hinges on whether House lawmakers are willing to put the interests of Kentuckians ahead of their own.

Roger Alford is editor of Kentucky Today and a longtime political writer.

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