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Kentucky lawmakers advance bill to reshape Louisville services, elections

Rep. Jason Nemes is a Republican from Middletown representing District 33.
Legislative Research Commission
GOP House Majority Whip Jason Nemes, of Middletown, presents House Bill 388, an act related to local government on the House floor.

Louisville Metro Council and mayoral elections could become nonpartisan under a bill advancing through a Senate committee Wednesday.

Louisville residents would no longer elect Democrats or Republicans in mayoral or city council elections under a bill advancing in the state legislature.

The legislation would also address a sense among Louisville Republicans that suburban areas aren’t getting their fair share of services and representation. Republican Rep. Jason Nemes from Middletown is sponsoring House Bill 388 that could change how city resources are distributed across the metro area.

For example, the city would have to reimburse suburban fire districts for any emergency medical services they provide inside the urban core. The new EMS reimbursements would likely cost Louisville Metro $6.6 million a year, according to the Legislative Research Commission.

The bill is at least partially based on the recommendations from a controversial merger commission. Nemes said in a series of community meetings held last year, the overwhelming sense he got from residents is that the merger needs reworking.

“There was one unifying thing: merger is not working for me. No matter where I live, merger is not working,” Nemes said. “I strongly support the merger, but it needs to be improved. And this is one of the things that I think will significantly improve the overall governance of the county.”

One of the most discussed elements is the potential shift to nonpartisan elections, which have already been adopted in some other Kentucky cities, including Lexington.

Republicans are not united on the benefits of partisan elections, and there were some concerns that the bill would face tougher criticism in the Senate, where other bills to make more elections partisan in Kentucky have been taken up. For example, another bill that is awaiting a House committee hearing after passing the Senate would make Kentucky Board of Education members partisanly-elected positions.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer from Georgetown Thayer and the committee’s chairman, Sen. Robby Mills from Henderson, are co-sponsors of that bill — both voted yes on HB388. Thayer said he is an avid supporter of partisan elections, but voted “yes” to make Louisville's races non partisan regardless.

“I despise nonpartisan elections, and I'm not thrilled with what I consider a regression here in going to nonpartisan races,” Thayer said. “However, it was Voltaire who said ‘Do not let the perfect be the enemy.’”

The bill already passed the state House on a party-line vote, with the majority of Louisville representatives voting “no.” Wednesday’s committee vote reflected more of the same, with only the two Democrats, both from Louisville, on the committee voting against it. It will now head to the Senate floor for consideration.

Sen. Cassie Chambers Armstrong, a Louisville Democrat, said she wondered if Louisvillians shouldn’t be allowed to vote on making election non-partisan or other changes to the merger system, which was initially voted in by residents in 2000.

Nemes said he believed nonpartisan elections would force mayoral candidates to campaign outside the urban core.

“Those are the kinds of things that we need in our mayor,” Nemes said. “I want them to hunt votes all around the county, and if you have to hunt votes all around the county, then you're going to care about our schools, our neighborhood places, our libraries all around the county.”

It is unclear how that would apply to Metro Council members, who are tied to individual districts, whether within or outside the urban core. The legislation would also make those elections nonpartisan.

Lexington Republican Sen. Amanda Mays Bledsoe says the merger re-evaluation process in Louisville may also be called for in Lexington.

“One of the things that I think we did right was starting nonpartisan,” Mays Bledsoe said. “I'm highly supportive of what you're doing, and I think you may find us doing a similar kind of overlook [in Fayette County] to say, ‘Are we still doing we intended to do?’”

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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