In Kentucky, we are witnessing the legislative corruption of absolute power

·3 min read

It may be that some unduly-optimistic individual in the 1880s expressed the idea that, although power tends to corrupt those in charge, if they have “absolute power” they will govern and act in a generous and evenhanded way. Lord Acton put this belief on the trash heap of wrong ideas when he wrote in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

For good examples of Lord Acton’s truth we can look at the Republican absolutely-dominated houses of the Kentucky legislature. Not content with being able pass and veto-proof any piece of legislation they want, they have now changed the rules so that they can cut off debate immediately after introducing a bill. Practice and tradition have been that when a motion to end debate is made, anyone else in the chamber who still wanted to speak could do so for 10 minutes. Now not at all, thus reinforcing the true Republican conservative principle of freedom of speech. Since those pesky Democrats have no ability to vote a bill down, why should the Republican majority have to waste time listening to them?

On the docket for the current legislative session is “BR 14: AN ACT relating to public education and declaring an emergency.” “Amend KRS 158.183 to require a local board of education or board of a public charter school to ensure that no public school or public charter school offers any classroom instruction or discussion that incorporates designated concepts related to race, sex, and religion”

Now that’s a bedrock conservative Republican principle: Let the government prescribe what can and cannot be discussed among its citizens and teachers. Keep government front and center in our lives. Limit the freedom of speech of students. Maybe burn a few books. After all, the GOP legislature has the absolute power to do so. And it’s declared an emergency so that such restrictions take place RIGHT NOW before another young mind is contaminated.

It can’t be that the proponents of the legislation would have been the members of the White Citizen Councils of sixty years ago? Or be Ku Klux Klaners a hundred years ago? Or slave owners 150 years ago?

And, of course, the Republican legislators are committed to democracy, supported by free and fair elections – elections in which regard is given to preserving existing sensible areas of political leaning. That’s why the GOP will enact gerrymandered maps dividing the city of Bowling Green into three legislative districts. They add in enough rural territory to make sure the votes of the city residents are diluted, ensuring that the resulting elected representatives are Republican. Can’t have too many of them. Need a super-super majority.

And, since the male is dominant in our human species it only makes sense to redraw the district lines so that women are drummed out of the legislature. Lord Acton again: “. . . absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

On the matter of the budget: Traditionally the executive branch proposes a plan and the result is produced by negotiation between the two fundamental agencies of government. Using its absolute power the GOP released a proposed budget first. Why should it bother observing regular order when it doesn’t have to? Heck, despite the Republican leadership’s spin suggesting it wants to negotiate with the Governor, it probably won’t even bother to read his submission. Why should it?

The only intrusion into the absolute power now wielded by the GOP is the high esteem in which many thinking citizens of the Commonwealth hold Gov. Beshear for his leadership and compassion in the COVID pandemic. While the GOP cabinet and legislative members have done their best to promote “individual freedom” regardless of the loss of life (recall the freshmen GOP reps showing up on the first day without masks?) the Governor has mostly prevailed. Surely with its absolute power the GOP can fix this in 2023. Or maybe not.

Michael Kennedy is a retired University of Kentucky geography professor.

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