This column appeared in the January 13, 2016 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
By: Scott Jennings
January 7th was an illustrative day when it comes to what’s at stake in the 2016 General Assembly. We learned on that day that one political party in Kentucky is fully controlled by trial lawyers (including massive out-of-state firms) and that one party that isn’t.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo didn’t show up for the state Chamber of Commerce’s annual Legislative Dinner last Thursday night in Lexington, which has joined Fancy Farm as a must-do event for Kentucky’s political elite. Over 1,500 of the state’s most important public policy, civic, and business leaders come to hear from the legislative leadership and governor about their respective agendas.
At this dinner, with his caucus crumbling and Democrats on the brink of losing control, Speaker Stumbo was a no-show. He was in Florida conducting business for his employer, Morgan and Morgan, one of the most well-known personal injury firms in the country.
Instead of laying out an agenda that Kentucky’s job creators could support, he just didn’t show up. Bill Goodman, Kentucky Educational Television’s (KET) venerable frontman, pulled the gag of the night when he took a fake phone call at the podium from Morgan and Morgan and told the person on the other end that Stumbo needed to “be here ‘for the people,’” quoting the firm’s catchphrase.
Goodman brought the house down.
Given Stumbo’s penchant for retribution, what with his idea to sue Democrats who have the audacity to switch parties, for instance, Goodman should keep an eye on KET’s budget in the upcoming legislative session. Speaking of that, is there a problem that can’t be solved by lawsuits? Not in Stumbo’s eyes. It is time to reevaluate your party building strategy when the only way to keep people on board is by threatening to sue them.
Also speaking at this dinner was Ray Jones, who leads the irrelevant 11-member Senate Democratic Caucus. He stood before hundreds of business people (several who have been the target of frivolous lawsuits) and essentially declared that Kentucky’s legal climate is just fine and that nobody ever faces frivolous lawsuits around these parts. Never mind the fact that Kentucky ranks 39th in the nation for its legal climate, according to the Institute for Legal Reform. Never mind that Kentucky health care facilities have closed because of our horrific tort system.
To sum up – the two Democrats who lead legislative caucuses in Frankfort are both plaintiff’s lawyers. On Thursday night, one of them was in Florida doing trial lawyer stuff while the other admonished the state’s business community to stop whining about frivolous lawsuits. Behold the Democratic message for Kentucky’s job creators.
These Frankfort Democrats and their masters in the trial bar are to Kentucky’s economy what your average mynock is to the power cables of the Millennium Falcon. Kentuckians expect Frankfort to do something about job creation, but what they’ll apparently get from Democrats is more lawsuits against anyone who has the audacity to – gasp – create a job in this state. Or switch parties.
Governor Matt Bevin, making his first trip to this dinner as a speaker, squashed Jones with a trial lawyer joke of his own and made it clear that he’s no fan of the opposition party’s lawsuit loving attitude. Bevin delivered a pro-business speech that left little to the imagination about where he’s going with his policy agenda. He rendered dead-on-arrival Stumbo’s plan to plunge the state $3.3 billion in debt to fix the pension system (my apologies to the word “fix” and to all those who know its definition) and called for right-to-work, a repeal of the prevailing wage law, and improvements to Kentucky’s legal climate.
Governor Bevin repeated his line that, unlike other Frankfort politicians, nobody has their “hooks” in him. It should come as no surprise that the trial bar is deeply “hooked” into the Kentucky Democratic apparatus. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the Kentucky trial bar’s political action committee made $259,550 in campaign contributions from 2003 to 2012, with $238,750 of it going to Democrats. For those keeping score at home, that’s 92% of their money sent to Democrats.
One reason Kentucky voters sent Matt Bevin to Frankfort is to break up the tort-happy cabal that has prevented Kentucky’s economic engine from firing on all cylinders.
Bevin planted a conservative, pro-business flag. Senate President Robert Stivers, fresh off his caucus unveiling its conservative agenda last week, delivered a statesman-like address designed to show Kentuckians that full blown Republican control in Frankfort will move the state in a reasonable and responsible direction. Part of that agenda is a tort reform measure requiring medical review panels to weed out frivolous lawsuits against health care providers, an idea that has perished many times in Stumbo’s House.
The juxtaposition of the Bevin and Stivers message against Stumbo’s absence and Jones’s tone deafness was delicious. Republican leadership in Frankfort proposed reform-minded ideas that will help the economy, while Democrats, speaking for the trial bar, ignored and scolded the state’s job creators.
Kentucky’s center-right majority and small business community won’t soon forget any of it.
Scott Jennings previously served as an advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.