, Corbin, KY


July 13, 2012

A closed door by any other name…

CORBIN — There are dysfunctional legislatures … and then there’s dysfunctional thinking by legislators.

Recently, the two embraced one another on the TV screen when Pure Politics host Ryan Alessi interviewed Jeff Donohue, who defeated incumbent Rep. Wade Hurt in the May Democratic primary for the 37th House District seat.

With his victory, Donohue, by virtue of a lack of Republican opposition, became the representative-elect.

He’s a former labor-union negotiator who told Alessi that he wants to put his negotiating skills to work in the legislature, which has “been dysfunctional,” and “need[s] to be on the same page.”

But while talking about fixing Frankfort’s dysfunction is politically correct talk, it may be the wrong goal.

There is, as a colleague of mine pointed out, “designed dysfunctionality.” Our founders actually meant for some “dysfunction” to protect the people by forcing a certain amount of gridlock upon those in power through checks and balances established by our Constitution in the form of separate branches of government and the legislative process.

Sure, we’d all rather have a government that works well to serve and protect its constituents. But too often, this romanticized notion expressed by Donohue and others of getting everyone “on the same page” involves the entirely wrong chapter.

For instance, everyone in the legislature could get “on the same page” and mandate tax increases to fix our budget problems. In that case, I would rather have the dysfunctional system that Donohue rails against. Wouldn’t you?

Clearly, the Kentucky General Assembly’s most defective ritual is the biennial budget process, where many of the critical spending decisions are made in secret– out of the purview of most the press and even many legislators. It’s likely even Donohue – unless he’s on the budget committee – will be excluded.

Not a problem, Donohue said.

As a union negotiator, he notes that he lived by the motto: “You can’t negotiate on the floor. There are times you have to sit behind closed doors and you clear out the baggage and you’re able to come to a common resolve.”

To his credit, Donohue admitted that as a newcomer: “I’ve got a lot to learn.”

Lesson Number One: There’s a significant difference between his union-shop universe and the Kentucky General Assembly.

Negotiating behind closed doors while representing his union buddies in Louisville may be acceptable in his former life. Elected officials horse trading with our tax dollars – and with as little transparency as possible – is not.

Whenever this difference is noted, it greatly annoys those uninformed about the dichotomy between public agencies and private groups.

For instance, ideological opponents will challenge me on this point by saying: “You claim to stand strongly for transparency, yet your organization is not transparent – you won’t tell us where your donations come from.”

That’s right, because the Bluegrass Institute – my employer – accepts no government funding or tax dollars. So it’s none of the public’s business where those dollars come from.

Donohue wouldn’t understand.

He was obviously uncomfortable as Alessi pressed him further about the lack of transparency in the budget process.

Not wanting to upset “his fellow administrators down there” – as he referred to other legislators – Donohue tried another tactic, claiming that because he represents voters who elected him, “I’m their representative there, so technically it’s not behind closed doors.”

Only in Frankfort or Washington do “closed doors” not mean “closed doors” for the political elites.  

At least I’m glad to see Donohue being so transparent about not being transparent. Glad in the sense of knowing for sure which page he’s on. The sooner that page is turned, the better.

Jim Waters is vice president of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at

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