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Kentucky’s Legislature Used to Be Stable. Now Lawmakers Are Fleeing

Between 2002 and 2018, the state had one of the lowest turnover rates of any state legislature in the nation. In the past four election cycles, the average number of legislators who did not run for re-election has nearly doubled.

The Kentucky General Assembly used to churn through members.

Over an 18-year stretch from 1947 to 1965, only 41 percent of all House members and 32 percent of Senate members won reelection. Almost half of all state-level elected officials chose to retire.

But in more recent years, 2002-2018, Kentucky had the one of the lowest turnover rates of any state legislature, coming in at sixth-lowest in the country.

That’s changing.

Kentucky’s turnover rate starting around 2018 has started to rise. In the past four election cycles, including this year’s, about 18.5 members of the 138-member General Assembly did not run for reelection or said they were leaving the legislature.

In the four election cycles before then, that average was just under 10.

Those figures are minuscule compared to the retirement rate of the mid-20th century, but the trend line is still pointing upward. Legislators leaving this year cite family commitments, low pay and a political environment made worse by the political fringe on both sides of the aisle.

To better understand Kentucky’s changing history, as well as the factors influencing legislative turnover nationwide, the Lexington Herald-Leader spoke with two experts: Longtime Kentucky political observer and journalist Al Cross and Arkansas State University political science Professor Jordan Butcher.

The National Context

Kentucky’s trend of falling legislative turnover – a measure of the percentage of state legislators who left office for any reason each year, voluntary or involuntarily – from 1981 to 2018 falls in line with the other 49 states, according to Butcher’s research.

What are the trends driving nationwide changes in state legislatures?

Professionalization is one of the main drivers, she said.

In a 2023 article published in The Journal of Legislative Studies, she wrote that three factors encompass legislative professionalization: The time commitment required of legislators, legislative pay and staff support.

“A highly professionalized legislature makes it easier for members to overcome the costs associated with service, as it is more like a full-time job with full-time pay,” Butcher wrote. “A less-professional legislature offers few incentives to serve and is less equipped to help members overcome the costs of service.”

Kentucky’s legislature is not full time, though it holds legislative sessions each year – 60 days long in even-numbered budget years and 30 days long in odd-numbered years – and interim committee meeting periods can often prove robust.

Unlike 16 other states, Kentucky does not have term limits.

Another reason turnover rates can fluctuate over time is party competition. Butcher found that a greater level of competition between the two dominant parties can lead to higher turnover, a correlation much stronger in lower chambers (in Kentucky’s case, the House) than upper chambers (Senate).

Party control can also affect how likely a legislator is to stay or go. If the state legislature is controlled by Democrats, then Republicans are more likely to leave, and vice versa, Butcher wrote.

In an interview, Butcher said Democrats across the country were choosing to retire at a slightly higher rate than Republicans, but the difference was not quite statistically significant.

Butcher added a sense of belonging is also key to limiting legislative turnover.

“If you don’t feel like you belong somewhere, you’re more likely to leave. That’s not just politicians, that’s everyone. If you walk into high school on the first day, and there’s nowhere for you to sit ... It’s not any different for these lawmakers,” Butcher said.

This can sometimes be an issue for women, as only three states – Nevada, Colorado and Arizona – have achieved gender parity in recent years. About 30 percent of Kentucky state legislators are women.

Butcher said that a proven step to address this issue that some states have pursued is developing a robust bipartisan women’s caucus.

“We know, especially for women, that having a supportive environment is beneficial, because women tend to take on more of the hate up front,” Butcher said. “They’re more likely to get harassing phone calls, they’re more likely to be judged by their male colleagues, and so having a supportive environment of other women is really beneficial.”

Financial stability also plays a huge role, she said.

“Are you financially stable enough to have, you know, an apartment in the capital and maintain your house back home? To afford child care? To afford going back and forth regularly? Are you able to take a sabbatical from your job? Are you able to work remotely or part time? Or are you a business owner? All of those things really play into it,” Butcher said.

The research around racial and ethnic diversity in state legislatures, Butcher said, is less settled.

What’s Behind Kentucky’s Fluctuation?

In the 1988 work “The Kentucky Legislature: Two Decades of Change,” Malcolm Jewell and Penny Miller charted a shift in the Kentucky General Assembly. It went, in their words, from “one of the least powerful and least effective legislatures in the country, almost entirely dominated by the governor” to “a far more powerful, professional and independent body.”

The upward shift in power and professionalism has accompanied a downward shift in turnover.

“Turnover in the legislature has dropped, from nearly one-half in the 1950s and 1960s to little more than one-fifth (in the 1980s), and a number of the legislators have served longer terms in office and have become experts in their areas of specialization,” Jewell and Miller wrote.

According to their data, only 41 percent of House members were reelected and 41 percent of them retired in the years 1947-65.

By 1979-86, 79 percent of House members were reelected and just 11.8 percent retired. In the Senate, 32.2 percent were reelected and 52 percent retired in the earlier time period, while 69.7 percent were reelected and 19.7 percent retired in 1979-86.

The overarching trend Cross mentioned was the increasing power and professionalization of the legislature over that period of time.

However, there’s a local wrinkle that increased the turnover rate in the mid-20th century. In many rural districts with more than one county, there were “seat sharing” arrangements. A person from one county would step down voluntarily in order for someone from another county in the district to take their place.

Only effective in districts dominated by the same party, as many districts were, “the agreements were made between the various county committees of the dominant political party, and they specified that the party’s nomination was to go to a person in another county after a member had served one or two terms,” wrote Jewell and Miller.

There was also another factor: Governors or aspiring governors.

Late Gov. Ned Breathitt, who led the commonwealth in the mid-1960s, helped several candidates unseat incumbents so he could pass a progressive agenda: The Kentucky Civil Rights Act, the first such desegregation law passed by a Southern state; strip mining regulations; and increased education funding, among others.

The political timing also linked the legislature to the governor. They shared a ballot with the odd-numbered gubernatorial election years, increasing the governor’s influence in those races, until a constitutional amendment passed in 1979 to move them to even-numbered years.

“The legislature was very much a part-time affair and it was on the same schedule as governor’s races, so governor’s races were highly influential,” Cross said.

That 1979 amendment was passed at the end of the recently deceased Julian Carroll’s gubernatorial term. Legislative independence was building then and would only increase under Carroll’s successor, John Y. Brown Jr.

“The sentiment for legislative independence had really gotten strong under Julian Carroll. They had an ostensibly good government reason, but the real reason was political,” Cross said. “They wanted to get out from under the governor.”

Comparisons between Jewell and Miller’s data and Butcher’s more recent data aren’t exactly apples-to-apples, as Butcher calculated per-year turnover while Jewell and Miller looked at each election cycle – four years for each Senator and two for House members.

However, it’s clear that turnover in the legislature continued to decrease into the beginning of the 21st century. From 2002 to 2018, the turnover rate each year was about 8.74 percent.

Cross said the relatively low turnover in that period might be attributed to the feeling that either party’s hold in their respective chamber – Republicans had just flipped the Senate and House Democrats were holding on to a majority while the rest of their Southern peers flipped red – feeling fragile.

“That does not surprise me, because there was intense partisan competition. Senate Republicans were trying to grow and maintain their caucus and House Democrats were trying to grow and maintain their caucus,” Cross said.

This runs counter to Butcher’s point about party competition increasing turnover, but Cross noted that many House Democrats held on for a long time before losing the majority because, due to their reputations in the community, they were seen as the only members of the party in the district that could keep the seat blue.

That changed after 2016, when a wave led by former Republican president Donald Trump at the top of the ticket fueled a major flip towards Republicans – they went from a 47-member minority to a 64-member majority in one election.

“When the dam finally broke in 2016, you had a lot of Democrats who didn’t like the idea of being in the minority, and they got out,” Cross said.

In 2018, 20 House members opted not to run for reelection. Eleven of the 36 remaining Democrats did not seek reelection that year, and in 2020, eight of the 37 House Democrats did not seek reelection.

Both marks represented more than twice the proportion of Republican House members who didn’t seek reelection.

©2024 Lexington Herald-Leader. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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