Threats to democratic participation define first week of 2019 General Assembly | Kentuckians For The Commonwealth

Threats to democratic participation define first week of 2019 General Assembly

Looking forward to making some positive impact in the 2019 General Assembly, KFTC members instead found efforts to limit public participation in the fundamental institutions and practices of our democracy.

Many members of KFTC and other groups were in the capitol and the adjacent capitol annex (where legislators have their offices and most committee meetings are held) for the first day of the session on January 8. The Kentucky Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and the Kentucky Council of Churches held events in the capitol rotunda that many participated in.

Others came to welcome new and returning legislators, especially several House representatives who had received active support from KFTC members during their campaigns. Among those was Jim Glenn, who won by one vote. Speculation was that House Republican leaders might refuse to seat Glenn since they are working to overturn his election.

To the surprise of many, several public areas of the capitol and annex were off limits to the public, including the tunnel that connects the capitol and the annex. Hundreds of people use the tunnel daily.

Guards at the annex side of the tunnel refused to let the public go through the tunnel – most of the time; the restriction was inconsistently enforced. Legislators, legislative staff, registered lobbyists and the media may still use the tunnel.

The alternative to using the tunnel is to leave the building, walk around to the other side of the capitol and re-enter, requiring an additional security check.

What if one has mobility issues? It is up to the discretion of the guard on duty whether to let a person through, a guard told some KFTC members.

What if there is inclement weather? "Bring an umbrella," another guard responded.

Other disturbing events during the first week of the General Assembly

  • the House held at least one unnoticed committee meeting that was inaccessible to the public;
  • House Republicans created an "election contest board" to determine the outcome of Jim Glenn's election, which has been certified by the Secretary of State; House leaders seized ballots from the Daviess County Clerk;
  • stakeholders were not allowed to testify in a Senate committee hearing on a bill that will impact their lives;
  • the governor held an invitation-only media briefing that many reporters were prevented from attending.

"[This] something that shouldn't be happening in a democracy."

— Scott Thile

Umbrellas are one of the items that the public may not bring into the buildings.

These unannounced "emergency" regulations were approved by the Bevin administration on January 4.

 Virginia Johnson and Jeff Hampton, northern Kentucky KFTC members, were allowed to use the tunnel.

"Jeff and I went for the Poor People's Campaign and the Council of Churches in the capitol. We came into the annex and had checked in there and were ready to go through the tunnel; state police stopped us and said they had to check us again, even though we had just done that. They let us through."

After the events in the capitol, Jeff and Virginia walked back through the tunnel without being stopped and were waiting for others near the end of the tunnel on the annex side.

"A plainclothes person comes out and says, 'Why are you standing here.? You're not allowed here. You're congregating. This is a group.'

I said. 'Well, there's only two of us. We're not blocking anything."

"He said, 'You have to leave here,' and he actually made us walk through the tunnel again, over to the capitol, opened the door and said, 'Don't try to come through this way again.'"

Members also were told that the third floor of the capitol, where the House and Senate chambers are, also was off limits.

  • the third floor is where the galleries are for the public to watch the House or Senate proceedings
  • the third floor is where the designated overflow room was for family and friends to watch (on closed-circuit tv) their loved ones get sworn in as a legislator.

After being escorted back to the capitol, Virginia and Jeff used the elevator to go the third floor of the capitol. "We went up to the third floor and another plainclothes person came up and started telling us, 'You can't be up here. No one is allowed on the third floor. You need to leave right now.'

"We started talking to him … and I actually felt almost threatend by him, he was that vehement about us leaving there. Finally he walked us over to the elevator, pressed the button, saw us get on and said, 'Don't dare try to come up here again.'"

The public also was blocked from using the stairs to get to the third floor.

Eventually, though, some people got there using the elevator. And guards on the stairs relented when they realized people were being told to go to third floor overflow room (and that room was hot and overcrowded while a bigger and better room on the second floor went unused).

"It was a really horrible experience, it really was. I was upset by it … for everybody that comes," added Virginia. "It's very important that we push on this. This is a threat to our democracy. It's just to restrain access to the capitol. That's the people's place. That's should be a place where we can all go and not be hassled."

"It is a way to intimidate people. Say you're a first-time person. You have an experience like that you're not going to go back!"

"Absolutely, Virginia. It is intimidation," Joanie Prentice noted after Virginia shared her story on a KFTC webinar. "We must persist, protest, write, call in order to maintain our right to be present in the legislative process."

There will be a public hearing about the emergency regulations on February 22 from 10 a.m.-noon in room 386 of the Annex. Speakers must notify Judy Piazza at least five workdays before the hearing. Written comments also may be submitted to Piazza, Executive Director, Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, Capitol Annex Building Room 392, Frankfort, Kentucky 40601; 502-564-4240, and Judith.Piazza@ky.gov.