The Richmond Register

September 14, 2013

No scientific explanation needed for these words

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — When the Administrative Regulations Review Subcommittee rejected new science standards – despite their approval by the Kentucky Department of Education – I promised myself I would resist the temptation to write about it in a column.

Lord knows it’s always unwise in Kentucky to side with a bunch of scientists on something like science.

So when Gov. Steve Beshear announced he will implement the regulation anyway – which he has legal authority to do – there was no reason to weigh in. The committee made its decision; the governor made his; and you’ll just have to make yours without my help.

Instead I’d rather talk about the inconsistent explanations for their votes by some subcommittee members. Words are supposed to mean something, aren’t they?

A couple of months ago the same lawmakers took another controversial vote, siding with the state Division of Water on a controversial standard for allowing Kentucky streams to be polluted by selenium, a toxic metal substance released by surface mining. Lawmakers had to evaluate complex and arcane scientific data to make their decision, an evaluation requiring a scientific sophistication most of us – and most lawmakers – don’t possess.

So some of them relied on the expertise of Department of Water personnel. Here’s Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, explaining his vote that day:

“I’m going to have to go back to confidence in the cabinet on this thing. I’m going to have to vote aye and put my confidence with the department and the cabinet.”

But when Bowen explained why he was voting against the recommendation of another government department (of education) on the science standards, he used a different criterion. This time he voted with two opponents who work for advocacy groups, not with the “experts” at the Department of Education, a litany of scientific groups, or a former professor of biology at Georgetown College (a Christian college by the way).

“These standards do not have the support of the people of the commonwealth,” said Bowen. “They do not. What determines good public policy is what the people want.”

I didn’t get a chance to ask the conservative Republican, but presumably that means he believes the two-time election of Democrat Barack Obama “is good public policy (because that) is what the people want.”

Now understand this was an entirely bi-partisan vote. Only one person, Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, voted for the regulation.

Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, passed. But he voted for the selenium regulation, citing at the time not only the advice of DOW staff but also the proper role of the subcommittee.

Back then Lee said that under Kentucky law, the subcommittee’s job is simply to determine if the agency proposing the regulation has the legal authority to do so.

“If the agency has the authority under KRS to promulgate this regulation then it’s almost our duty to send this regulation forward,” Lee said.

But this week, he passed on the regulation about what Kentucky’s students should understand after completing a course of study, a regulation promulgated by the Department of Education.

Lawmakers often ask to “explain my vote” on controversial issues, but I seldom quote those explanations because they usually are little more than political posturing. Very rarely do such explanations attempt to explain why an unpopular vote is actually in the best interest of the public.

In this case, the real reason – political pressure – was clear enough and some lawmakers, including Bowen and Lee, to their credit, said so. But I think it useful to remind lawmakers that every now and then someone actually listens to what they say. It’s just hard sometimes to take them at their word.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.