Rep. Coleman says state legislature 'is crumbling'

March 31, 2004|ANN R. HARNEY

HARRODSBURG - Rep. Jack Coleman's 14-year legislative career is coming to an end amid partisan wrangling that is unprecedented, at least as far as the Burgin lawmaker is concerned.

"The Kentucky General Assembly is crumbling," he said earlier this week.

It all came to a head Friday night when Republican House members staged a walkout over a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages while issues that include the budget went unaddressed.

The walkout was accompanied by cheers for Republicans and jeers for Democrats from the balcony packed with members of the Family Foundation, who then followed the Republican members out of the chamber and to a press conference with Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

Coleman said the walkout came when Rep. Joe Barrows called for the original question, stopping amendments to the proposed amendment. The bill defines marriage as only being between a man and a woman, but it does not ban civil unions.


That was the sticking point, along with provisions in the bill that would stop judges from ordering Kentucky lawmakers to come up with a substitute allowing such marriages or civil unions. Coleman said the original proposal banned civil unions, but did not stop judges from legislating from the bench.

"After 57 days, we were poised to vote on a constitutional amendment and they killed their own issue," Coleman said. It takes 60 votes, a super majority, to pass an amendment to the Kentucky Constitution, and when GOP members walked out, and of the members left, 52 voted yes while nine voted against it.

The dispute is over an issue Coleman believes was handled in a law the General Assembly passed in 1998 that has never been challenged in the courts. "It's in the law and, right now, that's all we need." "Marriage is prohibited and void: ... Between members of the same sex," the law states. The definition of marriage, which accompanies the law, says marriage "refers only to ... one man and one woman."

A change in the tone in the House chamber

The change in the tone in the House chamber, both from members and observers during the discussion of the proposed amendment, is part of the reason Coleman says the state's legislature is falling apart.

It is a lack of respect and failure to hold up its end of state government that is hurting the body. "We have diluted our status as an equal part of government." "In the 80s and 90s, the General Assembly maintained its equal role in government," Coleman said. "In the last session we had no budget." Coleman said he expects a budget will finally pass the General Assembly this year, although the House rejected it on Monday night.

"I had the honor of being around people like Joe Clarke, Mike Moloney and Joe Wright. They respected each other and the General Assembly as a body. It has not been a body because of partisan arguments and political maneuvering. That's affected the institution of the Kentucky General Assembly."

He said a lot of young people attend sessions, and he always explains to them that while members may disagree about issues, they respect each other and the chamber and as observers, they should have the same respect. Looking back at the behavior of the members and the people in the balcony Friday night puts the lie to the claim of mutual respect, he said.

A mob mentality

In the partisan wrangling, Coleman sees a mob mentality taking over which has ended mutual respect. About two weeks ago, he and five other Democratic Party House members took a tongue lashing during a closed door meeting of the Democratic caucus over what the leadership claimed where secret meetings with Fletcher and GOP members. "The caucus was a mob," he said. "This group was a mob," he added, referring to the crowd that first lined the halls of the capitol building and then filled the balcony of the House chamber Friday.

"It only says to me that we've crossed the line," he said. "When emotion is allowed to accelerate past a certain point, it takes on a mob mentality." Issues such as same-sex marriage cross the line of separation of church and state and take up time from the legislative session needed to handle the business of the state, including education, taxes, budgets, Medicaid and health care, he said.

"These issues can bring a governmental body to its knees," Coleman said of Friday's debate. He said the framers of the constitution knew what they were doing when they separated church and state.

Coleman decided last year that he would not seek re-election to the legislature representing Mercer, Anderson and a small part of Spencer counties, and attitudes like those that have attended the last several years are part of the reason. These last days of the 2004 session are also his last days, but the recent actions of the General Assembly are not the way he wanted to end his career. "I didn't want to go out this way," he said.

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