For democracy to function as it should, accountability is essential. And accountability requires transparency, so voters know what’s going on in their government.
Frankfort said goodbye to a hero for transparency and accountability on April 28, the day after Gov. Matt Bevin struck a blow for both — and almost two weeks after the state House failed to apply those principles to pensions, a central issue for Bevin and the hero.
Lowell Reese was the hero. As an independent journalist and publisher, he shined a bright light on Frankfort’s dirty corners, such as legislator-lawyers who cashed in on a workers’ compensation system they created, and legislators’ manipulation of their own pension laws to create a gravy train that has made staying in office the top priority for too many of them.
Reese died April 15, the same day the House failed to pass Senate Bill 2, which was aimed at solving what the Lexington Herald-Leader called “a crisis in confidence from lagging investment returns and murky reporting on contracts and costs” of state pension systems, some of the nation’s worst-funded.
The bill would have required the systems to hire investment managers through competitive, open bidding, report their management fees and make better reports on their financial performance. The folks who run the systems weren’t for the bill, and the Democrats who run the House never called it for a floor vote.
There’s probably some connection between the Democrats’ lack of action and their need for lots of campaign money to keep control of the narrowly divided House in this fall’s elections. That could be one reason Bevin removed Thomas Elliott, chair of the Kentucky Retirement Systems board, after the legislative session.
Pension systems and their contractors handle millions, and can be big financial players in politics, which has become less transparent in recent years with the advent of “super PACs,” political action committees that can take unlimited funds from anonymous contributors. It seems a safe bet that some KRS contractors’ money will be working for House Democrats this fall, just as the House Democrats worked for them.
Local government transparency: One of Bevin’s lesser-known moves after the session was a strong defense of transparency. He vetoed last-minute language in the state budget that would have allowed local governments to publish their annual financial statements online or at the main public library instead of the local newspaper with the largest paid circulation.
The language mirrored an exemption for school districts, which the legislature started putting in the budget 12 years ago. Both are bad ideas. Surveys show that few citizens go online looking for such information, but when they come across it in their newspaper, many read it. Newspapers may have lost print circulation, but their online presence is strong, and they place such “public notice” advertising on a website, without extra charge, to serve online readers.
The language was inserted by Republican Chris McDaniel, chair of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee, who represents Northern Kentucky cities that don’t like paying The Kentucky Enquirer’s advertising rates. McDaniel told me the exemption was supposed to apply only to counties with populations over 100,000, but there was a drafting error that wasn’t caught in the rush to assemble the complex budget bill.
The Kentucky Press Association mounted a lobbying campaign to kill not only McDaniel’s exemption but the school-district language – an exemption that seems all the more nonsensical because schools got the kindest treatment in the budget. (I’m a KPA director, but I don’t lobby.)
Bevin vetoed both exemptions, in a major victory for transparency and accountability. His communications director, Jessica Ditto, said she didn’t know anything about the drafting issue, but “Governor Bevin values our small town papers and supports transparency.” Good for him.
Lowell Reese would have cheered that veto. He thought government should be transparent and accountable – conventional beliefs for a journalist, but he wasn’t a conventional journalist, as former columnist John David Dyche said Thursday at a celebration of Reese’s life.
After a career working for state chambers of commerce in Kentucky, Arizona and South Carolina, and dabbling in Republican politics, Reese came to Frankfort and in 1990 established Kentucky Roll Call, and in 1995 established The Kentucky Gazette, reviving the name of the state’s first newspaper. He sold the Gazette to Laura Cullen Glasscock several years ago but kept Roll Call, writing occasionally and without fear or favor.
Reese died of leukemia that he thought was caused by his exposure to Agent Orange as a combat infantryman in Vietnam, but “he loved this country and much as anybody, and he wanted it to work…. He was a patriot in every sense of the word,” Steve Earle of Madisonville, a vice president of the United Mine Workers of America, told me as he left last week’s event.
Earle and Dyche were emblematic of the broadspectrum crowd that came to the Serafini restaurant to pay tribute: traditional Democrats and establishment Republicans, neoconservatives, libertarians, lobbyists and Bernie Sanders supporters.
Dyche told the crowd, “One of the main motivations, I think, in Lowell’s life was to make Kentucky a better place.”
Pension system critic Chris Tobe said, “Lowell was there, and 10 years ahead of everyone else, on that issue.” He told me in an email, “If we had more people like Lowell in Frankfort, our pension mess would be significantly less.”
I saw no legislators in the room.
Al Cross, former CJ political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.