Senate bill to make local elections partisan won’t pass this session

Mark Payne
Mark Payne
Mark Payne is the government and politics reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected].

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Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said he wouldn’t push the controversial Senate Bill 50 during the 2023 legislative session, meaning the bill won’t pass this year.

“I still feel strongly voters deserve more information, and this is one way to get it to them,” Thayer said of the bill that would make it the standard for all municipal elections to be partisan.

Earlier in the day, House Bill 50 — a companion bill filed by Rep. Matt Lockett (R-Nicholasville) — was scheduled for a committee vote in the House Committee on Elections but didn’t come up for a vote.

With only five days left in the legislative session before the veto period — there are two regular days after —  HB50 faces an uphill battle.

“I don’t have any idea,” said Rep. John Hodgson (R-Fisherville), HB50’s co-sponsor, on if the bill would move or not.

Leaders across Northern Kentucky have voiced opposition to both bills.

Typically, mayors, school boards, and other municipal positions are elected without party affiliations next to their names on the ballot. Adding those affiliations would mean more candidates move through the primary election process, and many worry that fewer candidates may be willing to run for office as a result. The cost to hold additional primaries is also a reason many local leaders have opposed the bills.

“We know it’s challenging enough to find good people to run for office,” said Independence Mayor Chris Reinersman at a Feb. 7 city council meeting. “Why would we add another layer, another hurdle to get over for something that has really no obvious benefit?”

Thayer said he’s aware of leaders in NKY voicing opposition, but he said that the voters want it, though he appreciates their opinions and thoughts.

“I stuck it in a poll that we did, and it enjoys 65% popularity,” Thayer said.

While Thayer said that SB50 won’t pass this session, it doesn’t mean the issue is going to go away.

“Sometimes it takes a couple of sessions to pass a good idea,” Thayer said.

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The bill is reminiscent of one passed in Tennessee in 2021, which gave school board candidates the option to declare their party affiliation. Arguments ensued over whether politics belonged in education, but the bill ultimately passed and altered school board elections the following year.

According to reporting by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news outlet focused on education, proponents of the Tennessee legislation said party labels remove the guesswork out of school board elections.

“Some try to argue that school boards are somehow apolitical because they don’t have an R or a D beside their names. That’s nonsense,” said Tennessee Rep. Mark Cochran (R-Englewood). “The politics are already there. This is just shedding light on what politics are there.”

Few Republicans joined Democrats, who are outnumbered in Tennessee, to argue that the state needs less partisanship, not more. They believed the legislation would diminish the pool of qualified candidates due escalating political division and the expense of campaigning.

“We all want good school board members because good school board members are going to make for good schools,” said Rep. Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain). “But we have seen across our state and across the country how difficult some school board meetings are. It’s going to be harder and harder to get good candidates to even consider running.”

Now, Indiana and Kentucky are seeing similar bills move through their legislatures in the 2023 session. Though, in Indiana, the legislation gives more local control on whether municipal elections will be partisan.

While Kentucky’s southern neighbors made it optional for candidates to declare their affiliation, Kentucky’s bill would require it.

Currently, laws in four states, including Alabama, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, automatically allow for party labels to appear on the ballot for municipal elections or other local races.

Laws in Georgia, Rhode Island, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina, laws either explicitly allow for partisan or nonpartisan elections or give local officials the power to decide.

Since HB50 was introduced, elected officials statewide have voiced their concerns – it has become one of the few topics with support from both sides of the political aisle.

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“From what I understand, there is bipartisan support for nonpartisan elections,” said Erlanger Mayor Jessica Fette at the meeting. “So, anytime you have Democrats and Republicans seeing eye-to-eye to keep the partisanship out of elections, I really think we need to take note.”

Mayors across Northern Kentucky, many of whom are Republicans like the legislators who introduced the bill, have taken measures to oppose the legislation.

At a meeting of the Kenton County mayor’s group — an unofficial group composed of the mayors from Kenton County’s 19 cities — on Jan. 21, a resolution was introduced to oppose the bill’s passage.

The resolution passed nearly unanimously with one holdout, Mayor David Hatter of Fort Wright, who opposed the resolution due to his general stance against mayors meeting resolutions.

Hatter later took the issue to Fort Wright’s City Council, which unanimously passed a resolution to oppose the bills during a meeting on Feb. 1.

Other cities have followed suit, including Independence, which passed a resolution on Feb. 6.

Ludlow passed a resolution that granted its mayor the right to oppose both bills.

In addition, Walton’s city council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the bills on Feb. 14. Sources from within the city office claim that council members simply didn’t find the costs associated with an additional round of elections to be worth the trouble.

Erlanger did the same. Fette said that Erlanger’s government was “strongly opposed” to the bill, adding that introducing partisan politics into local elections didn’t make sense.

Mayor Joe Meyer of Covington has not given his stance on the bills one way or another beyond his yes vote at the mayors meeting. At least one member of the Covington Commission, however, has expressed worry about the bill’s potential passage.

Covington Commissioner Nolan Nicaise brought the issue to the commission’s attention at the legislative meeting on Feb. 14. No action relating to the bills was taken at the meeting.

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“We and the other commissioners and mayor ran as nonpartisan members,” he said.

At least two Kenton County commissioners agreed.

Later, he added, “I don’t think it’s good for local politics.”

Commissioner Joe Nienaber, in a conversation with LINK nky after a Kenton County Fiscal Court meeting on Feb. 14, said that most of the issues that come up in local politics simply don’t map onto ideological issues that tend to occupy candidates’ attention at the national level.

He also brought up the issue of cost.

“I think it would cost a lot of money,” Nienaber said, especially if primary elections became mandated. “And I think it would require a lot on behalf of people who are really getting paid $2,000, $1,500 a year.”

After the meeting, Commissioner Beth Sewell recalled cities struggling to get enough candidates to run for office in recent elections.

Of the 165 local elections across the three-county region, 50 total non-partisan races went uncontested in the 2022 General Election. There were nearly as many uncontested partisan races, with 44 total races that went uncontested in the 2022 election – meaning more than half of all local elections in 2022 had no contest.

Sewell added that if a particular city wanted to make its elections partisan, it should be allowed to decide on its own.

The city of Florence also passed a resolution opposing the legislation.

“Our leaders oppose any bills that would add substantial costs, require more poll workers and add partisan politics to local offices.”

Florence council also added that “within the state of Kentucky, there are 415 cities and only five of them partake in partisan elections. We ultimately see no significant benefit to requiring partisan elections that would warrant additional cost and challenges presented by the requirement. The city of Florence believes decisions are best made at the local level.”

Nathan Granger, Sydnie Barrett, Robin Gee, Haley Parnell, Becca Brunner, Charles Infosino, and John Thompson contributed to this report.

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