This article was first published by the Kentucky Lantern and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.
Called an effort to “protect” the integrity of Kentucky’s public television broadcaster, a bill passed unanimously out of a Senate committee Wednesday that would disband the current board for Kentucky Educational Television and require future appointments by the governor to the board be confirmed by the Republican-controlled state Senate.
Bill sponsor Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield, speaking in front of the Senate State & Local Government Committee, said Senate Bill 104 came about amid “polarization of almost every segment of our society” including media coverage, referencing the “extremes of CNN and Fox News.”
“We’re experiencing politicization and weaponization of various governmental institutions, which we’ve never seen before,” Meredith said. “What we’re attempting to do is to protect the image, integrity and mission of KET.”
Currently, the nine-person board for the Kentucky Authority for Educational Television, the governing body of KET, consists of five appointments by Kentucky’s governor, as of now Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. These appointments do not currently require confirmation by the state Senate.
The other members of the board include a representative from the University of Kentucky, a member representing the state’s universities elected by the Council on Postsecondary Education, a staff member from the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky commissioner of education.
Meredith’s bill, which was changed Wednesday through a committee substitute, would disband the current KET board and require future gubernatorial appointments to the board be confirmed by the state Senate.
Board members who would lose their seats as a result of the legislation could be considered for reappointment, under the bill.
It would remove the member representing the University of Kentucky and the member representing state universities; it would add to the board the president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and a staff member of the council.
The bill would also require geographical representation of the board by not allowing more than two members to represent the same state Supreme Court district, would require “equal representation” of the “two sexes,” would require the board to reflect the minority makeup of the state and require the partisan makeup of the board to reflect the voter registration of the state, in which Republicans have a slight plurality.
In an interview after the bill cleared the committee, Meredith said his bill would prevent the politicization of KET through measures dictating partisan makeup and a measure that would prevent a board member from joining who has worked in the state’s executive branch less than a year from an appointment.
“If we really were (wanting to) control KET, we wouldn’t have made sure it had to be nonpartisan composition — it’s going to be 50-50, Republican and Democrat,” Meredith said. “Even more importantly, it really gives a chance to diversify that board and be more reflective of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and I’m very excited about it.”
When asked what spurred the legislation, Meredith said he was “quite concerned” about Beshear appointing to the board the governor’s communications director, Crystal Staley, last summer. He also said he considered the current KET board to be “leaning very partisan.”
“I don’t know that she has intent on influencing the content of KET, but the appearance of that is not good. It looks like the potential is there to be influence,” Meredith said.
Scottie Ellis, a spokesperson for Beshear’s office, said in a statement the bill was “aimed at controlling KET” and that “the only people playing politics are certain members of the General Assembly.”
“These members are more focused on petty attacks on the governor than they are on raising teacher pay, providing universal pre-K or otherwise helping the people of Kentucky,” Ellis said.
Staley did not respond to a question asking her response to Meredith’s comments.
Meredith said he received feedback on the bill from KET and tried to “respect” the public broadcaster’s input. KET spokesperson Todd Piccirilli in a statement said KET thinks “the legislation sounds reasonable.”
“Once we learned about the legislation following its posting, we suggested that the (Council on Postsecondary Education) appointments be consistent with the (Kentucky Department of Education) appointments,” Piccirilli said. “This would appear to provide criteria similar to other boards in the state.”
Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, voted “yes” on the bill, telling the Lantern the state Senate having input on gubernatorial appointees wasn’t a bad idea, but she believed the legislation was part of a larger effort by the Republican-dominated legislature to take power away from the Democratic governor.
While she supported the bill, she also cautioned that it “could change” as it moves through the legislature.
“We need to be spending our time doing other things,” Harper Angel said.