The Richmond Register

March 13, 2013

A day with lawmakers behind closed doors

Work still goes on, just out of sight

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — Some of those watching the last two days of the General Assembly on Kentucky Educational Television may wonder what lawmakers are doing during all those recesses.

Most lawmakers are quick to tell you they are working — they’re just doing it out of sight of the cameras.

As the days when bills can still be passed wind down, the two chambers — the 100-member House and 38-member Senate — often pass different versions of the same measures or bills which the other chamber doesn’t like.

The leaders of the two chambers then typically appoint relatively small committees to try to work out a compromise. For those who aren’t on those committees, there isn’t much to do except wait for the committees’ reports.

Most, like Rep. Rita Smart, D-Richmond, retreat to their offices in the annex across the street and try to catch up on correspondence with constituents.

“I’m trying to finish up answering all my green slips,” Smart said, referring to the green notes which legislative phone operators use to pass on messages to lawmakers from constituents. “I try to clean up my office as we get ready to leave. But maybe the best part is to visit other (lawmakers’) offices and see what food everyone has.”

“And of course we’re trying to figure out what’s happening or what is going to happen,” she added.

Her colleague, Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, also goes back to his office and tries to answer phone calls and respond to green slips. But he may also walk down to the Senate to check on the status of bills he sponsored and which have passed the House but haven’t come out of the Senate.

Sometimes during the last days, work goes on into the night and when the House recesses for dinner, Bell said it allows time for lawmakers to get together in a relaxed setting that’s not always available during much of the session.

“I’ll usually go out with a large group — sometimes 16, 17 people or more — for dinner,” Bell said. “But really, all we talk about is what’s going on, which bills are going to pass.”

Sen. Jared Carpenter, R-Berea, does as Smart does and heads to his office to answer green slips and “talk to others about bills we’re trying to pass.

“It’s also a good time to socialize with other members,” Carpenter added. “People back home may not realize it, but most of the time we really don’t have time to visit with others, and it’s a good time to get to know each other better.”

But sometimes that’s not possible when the House or Senate recesses “until the call of the chair.” That means they could be asked to return at any time, and at a moment’s notice.

Carpenter’s colleague from Somerset, Republican first-term Sen. Chris Girdler, got in some voice practice — singing “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art” with other Senators right on the Senate floor.

Rep. Tommy Turner, R-Somerset, and Rep. Jonathan Shell, R-Lancaster, both minority Republicans in the Democratic House stand outside the chamber and lament the role of a minority member, often kept in the dark by Democratic leadership about negotiations on some issues — just as Republicans sometimes don’t tell all to Democrats in the Senate.

Shell, a freshman, seeks advice and guidance from Turner — a wily, low-key veteran who gets along with members of both parties and is quietly effective even as a minority member. They talk a little about hunting dogs and a little about farming.

“I’ve got 180 acres to farm and I’ve only got 10 acres plowed so far,” Shell says. Turner’s eyebrows arch and he responds: “Son, you better get busy.”

Across the way in the office of Majority Floor Leader, Rep. Tanya Pullin, D-South Shore, laughs at a story from Rep. Hubie Collins, D-Wittensville.

Collins, who is known for bright, pastel sports jackets and artful ties as well as his good humor and easy laugh, had just returned from a quick trip to Walgreen’s for some medicine.

He was sporting his plum-colored jacket and he regaled Pullen with stories from his days as a high school basketball referee in basketball-worshiping eastern Kentucky.

“One time after a close game, the state police had to escort me all the way to Morehead,” laughed Collins.

Outside the office, Rep. Fitz Steele, D-Hazard, wondered aloud if he had time to get to his pickup and drive to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard.

Not tonight. Suddenly, the House chimes sounded, and all the lawmakers in the office, out in the hallway, jumped to it and headed for the House chamber as Speaker Greg Stumbo began to pound the gavel.

Minutes later, House Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, told a 100 weary lawmakers there hadn’t been much progress in negotiations on a bill about superintendent training and another conference committee hadn’t yet met on another issue.

“So, Mr. Speaker, I move the House stand in recess until the hour of 9 p.m.,” Adkins intoned.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at