Group of GOP legislators ask for rule changes

Published 1:36 pm Thursday, December 7, 2023

A group of Republican lawmakers has presented a list of rule changes to elevate legislator voices ahead of the session beginning next month. 

State Reps. Felicia Rabourn, Savannah Maddox, Steve Doan, Josh Calloway, Marianne Proctor, Steve Rawlings, Nancy Tate and Candy Massaroni signed a letter to the Kentucky House leadership presenting their ideas.

Most of these representatives belong to an informal “Liberty” wing of the Republican Party that holds strict constitutional views.

Four also had several committee assignments taken away from them at the last minute at the end of the 2023 General Assembly by House leadership, allegedly for criticizing leadership in various ways.

What powers does leadership have?

In the Kentucky House of Representatives, a handful of leaders have a lot of say on what legislation makes it to a vote on the floor.

Through the Rules Committee and the Committee on Committees, leadership can control which bills are moved into which committee, what bills are heard there and if and when bills are heard on the floor, where all 100 representatives can vote on them.

The House elects leadership every two years.

What are the proposed rule changes?

Rabourn, R-Pendleton, shared some of the proposed rule changes in a Twitter thread Tuesday.

The first rule would require members to be notified in advance if leadership wants to remove them from a committee, and if they disagree with the move, they would be allowed to call a committee vote on the matter.

The second would allow every committee member to have at least one of their priority bills heard.

Rabourn said that this may be the most “controversial” of the proposed changes.

The Kentucky House of Representatives has lawmakers hailing from areas with very different values, and Rabourn said some representatives might shy away from having to vote yes or no on a particularly controversial policy for fear of backlash.

“But to me, and a lot of other elected officials, taking a stance on a tough issue or policy is exactly why we’re elected,” Rabourn said. “We’re elected to be the voice of our constituents.”

Third, the group of GOP lawmakers wants to reform the discharge petition process, which decides which bills get heard for a floor vote among the entire House.

Currently, leadership decides if and when bills that pass committee are put up for a floor vote. The rule change would put bills up for a vote if at least 25 members signed a petition to hear it, regardless of leadership’s opinion.

This would make it more difficult for leadership to block bills that may be popular enough to pass.

Fourth, committee members would choose their committee chairs and vice chairs, as opposed to the committee on committees, which is made up of leadership.

Fifth, the four rank-and-file members, two from each party, would be added to the Rules Committee, which currently is helmed by leadership.

Sixth, bills would be assigned a committee within five days.

Seventh, if a bill that a representative has sponsored is listed on the Orders of the Day, they can call for it to be voted on.

The last proposed change concerns bills that are amended or substituted in committee, which generally means they have undergone significant changes, or perhaps have been entirely switches out for another bill.

The new rule would give House members three legislative days to look over the amended bill before it could be put in the Orders of the Day for a potential floor vote.

What led to this?

This comes after a recent League of Women Voters of Kentucky report that highlighted and quantified a pattern of behavior limiting transparency in the Kentucky legislature.

These behaviors include replacing bills with substitute versions on short notice with little time for review as well as holding floor votes on bills the same day they are approved in committee, giving other representatives little time to review them.

The report found that 25 years ago, maneuvers such as these were used to pass less than 5% of bills, while they were used to pass 32% of House bills and 24% of Senate bills in 2022.

Rabourn said that the conversations around rule changes began before the 2023 session, though. In the past year, she said she has spoken to many of her Republican colleagues about what the most crucial changes would be.

Being stripped of four committees was additional motivation.

But it comes down to having all Kentuckians’ voices heard, she said.

“Oftentimes, it’s not the legislators that necessarily get to see an important piece of legislation pushed across the finish line,” Rabourn said.

“You’ve got taxpayer-funded lobbyists up there, working around the clock to lobby legislators while hard working citizens are at work. And I think if there’s anything to come of this, constituent voices will be heard through their elected officials, rather than unelected bureaucrats.”

What will it take for these changes to be implemented?

To pass these changes, they need to be heard on the House floor. There, the changes need 51 votes to pass.

Rep. Steven Doan, R-Erlanger, said that caucus unity is a must to get these proposed changes across the finish line.

“I think that we’ve got to be in agreement that these are changes that we all want to see as a majority party, and if there’s not buy in from everybody, I don’t know that that there’s any real chance of anything getting done,” he said.

Both Doan and Rabourn said that they appreciate that leadership has been willing to engage in a dialogue over this, but that they aren’t sure where they stand on them right now.

Doan said that empowering rank-and-file members might actually help leadership, though.

“I think that’ll make leadership’s job actually easier in some respects,” he said. “We can get rid of some internal caucus fights and kind of have those discussions in public a little bit better.”