Metro Council Democratic Caucus members spoke at a press conference Thursday outside of city hall. | Photo by Joe Sonka

Members of the Metro Council Democratic Caucus held a press conference Thursday calling on state legislators to end their so-called “war on Louisville” and instead partner with the city to solve problems related to prison overcrowding, drug addiction and infrastructure spending.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, council Democrats and the members of the Jefferson County Board of Education have been critical in recent weeks of legislation pushed by Republicans in the Kentucky General Assembly that they say undermines the home rule of the governmental bodies in the city. Some of these Democrats have called it an organized effort to wage a “war on Louisville” wherein the now Republican-controlled state government would take over functions and policies once controlled by Metro Government or the school district.

Councilman Brent Ackerson, D-26, said the new leadership in Frankfort typically criticizes overreach by the federal government within Kentucky but is being hypocritical by prioritizing the undermining of Louisville’s local control.

“The current leadership of the state legislature, the House and Senate, seems to be less focused on fixing real problems affecting Kentucky and more focused upon taking control of Louisville’s home rule.” said Ackerson. “The ‘war on Louisville’ seems to be true.”

Council President David Yates said the “micromanagement of Louisville does nothing for the commonwealth, but it does weaken the voice of our local constituents. We’re not here looking for a fight. We’re looking for a partnership for the good and prosperity of the people.”

The press conference did not involve attacks on specific bills pushed by Republicans in Frankfort, such as legislation allowing the city’s ban on plastic bags for yard waste to be removed, giving the governor the power to fill mayoral or council vacancies with his own appointees, or mandating an end to the historic JCPS student assignment busing plan by allowing any student to attend their nearest available “neighborhood school.” Instead, several council members spoke of legislation that was languishing in Frankfort that should be taken up and passed to help the city.

Councilman Pat Mulvihill cited the overcrowding crisis of Metro Corrections’ downtown jail, which currently holds 500 more prisoners than its capacity. He noted that 400 of these are currently state prisoners that cannot be transferred due to state facilities also being overcrowded, with the state reimbursing the city only $31 per inmate per day, even though it costs anywhere from $70 to $240 to house them — which could wind up costing Louisville taxpayers up to $31 million annually if those trends continue. Mulvihill said Frankfort needs to step in and help with criminal justice reform to reduce incarceration — citing Senate Bill 120 of GOP Sen. Whitney Westerfield — as the state has not replaced the private prisons it has closed over the past decade.

Councilwoman Vicki Aubrey Welch cited Louisville’s growing heroin and opioid epidemic to call for the passage of a number bills that have not progressed in Frankfort, including ones that would require mandatory drug treatment for possession of some types of drugs, allow more day reporting and home incarceration for nonviolent crimes, and a 1 cent per dose tax on prescription opioid pills distributed, with that revenue going toward drug treatment programs. Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton called for the passage of legislation that has been attempted over the last decade to allow the city to more easily acquire vacant and abandoned properties so they can be redeveloped, while Councilwoman Mary Woolridge promoted House Bill 86, which would reduce the filing fee for felony expungements from $500 to $200.

Councilman Bill Hollander — chair of the Democratic Caucus — promoted the bipartisan House Bill 292, which would modernize how the funds collected by the state’s gasoline tax are distributed, so that urban areas like Louisville aren’t disproportionately funding the rest of the state’s roads.

“Current law does not take into account lane miles or traffic counts or other measures that are related to road use and maintenance needs,” said Hollander. “Instead, it heavily favors rural, low-population counties where roads and highways are less used. That means the dollars you pay at the pump go to other counties, making their roads better while we struggle to maintain Louisville’s roads… we deserve our fair share.”

No mention was made at the press conference of bills filed by Democrats to allow Louisville Metro Government to pass its own gun control laws or raise its local minimum wage, nor was there criticism of House Bill 151 — the “neighborhood schools” bill that the Jefferson County School Board passed a unanimous resolution opposing on Wednesday.

Asked if the press conference was an attempt to shame Republicans — though that party’s name was not specifically mentioned by any of the council members — Hollander said it was not, rather saying the Democrats were “encouraging Frankfort to work with us to make Louisville better, and therefore make all of Kentucky better. That’s why we’re here today. We have some specific suggestions, much of it pending legislation in Frankfort right now, that can move this city forward. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Chris Lewis, a legislative assistant for the Metro Council Republican Caucus, told IL that none of the GOP members were invited to today’s press conference. He added that it was interesting that the gasoline tax formula bill was mentioned, as “that’s a topic that the Republican Caucus lobbied heavily for beginning 7 or 8 years ago to no avail under the (former Democratic Gov. Steve) Beshear administration. We haven’t been approached for support or assistance by anyone in their leadership on a single one of the issues they addressed today, not one.”