Jefferson County Democrat Joni Jenkins made history when she was elected House Minority Floor Leader in December. That makes her the first female to lead a party caucus in the history of the state legislature. But the diversity in Democratic leadership in the chamber does not stop there: Party members elected Derrick Graham, an African American from Frankfort, to serve as the party's caucus chair, and Angie Hatton of Whitesburg as the new minority whip.
“Our caucus has gotten so much more diverse over the years,” says Jenkins. “We have 18 women in our caucus and, I believe, six people of color, so we look more like Kentucky than we ever have, and that’s a good thing.”
Despite the historic composition of their leadership, Democrats still face a supermajority of Republicans in the House. Jenkins says she prefers to see that not as a challenge but as an opportunity.
“The majority leadership needs our help, they need having our good ideas,” she says. “I feel like they’re going to be open to listening to some of those things.”
Jenkins says she considers House Speaker David Osborne (R-Prospect) a friend. The two Jefferson County representatives have served together in the House for 15 years. (Jenkins started in Frankfort in 1995, Osborne in 2005.) In that spirit of bipartisanship, Jenkins hopes lawmakers can "disagree without being disagreeable."
“When you serve so long, these folks become part of your family,” says the Democrat. “We really are just all people and... we really need to respect each other.”
Like the state's new Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, Jenkins says House Democrats will make public schools their priority.
“If we’re going to move Kentucky forward,” she says, “it starts with education.”
During the interim period, several House Democrats drafted their own education-related bills, including measures to reduce class size and implement universal pre-kindergarten, according to Jenkins.
Gov. Beshear wants to give all public school teachers a $2,000 pay raise. Jenkins supports that idea, but says she's uncertain how to secure the estimated $84 million a year to make that happen.
Republicans tout that under their leadership, the legislature has increased per-pupil funding to a record high of $4,000. But Democrats contend that funding hasn't kept pace with inflation, and that Republicans also cut dollars for textbooks, teacher professional development, student transportation, and other services.
“You can use the numbers any way you want to say we're fully funding, but there's always more need there,” says Jenkins, “to be able to pay teachers what they deserve, and to attract new people into this career path... and to give, in the classroom, the children what they need, whether it’s technology, textbooks, and wrap-around services.”
Jenkins says it's no secret the state doesn't take in enough revenue to cover its obligations. That's why she says it's crucial for lawmakers to consider new sources of funds like proceeds from sports wagering and expanded gaming. (Senate Republican leaders have already said proposals for casinos are "dead on arrival" in the upper chamber.)
She says Democrats are also willing to look at tax reform so long as it doesn't "pick winners and losers" by giving more tax breaks to wealthy individuals and corporations.
“We want business to do well, but I don’t think that we can calculate how well Kentucky is doing by how the wealthiest among us are doing,” says the Democrat.
Politicians, says Jenkins, do their constituents a disservice by talking about taxes as something negative.
“I look taxes as an investment in our communities,” she says, “but I think people need to be very secure and confident that their tax money is fair – that it’s being collected fairly and applied fairly, and that they are afforded services for that – that they see what they’re investing in.”
Jenkins also hopes lawmakers will do more to alleviate the opioid addiction crisis and to further reform the criminal justice system. She says it makes no sense to charge local governments to hold low-level, non-violent suspects because they can't afford to pay their bail.
“We incarcerate a whole lot of folks in the state of Kentucky [and] a whole lot of women,” says Jenkins. “I'm looking forward to seeing bipartisan work on that.”
The Democrat contends there are smarter ways to hold people accountable for crimes and keep communities safe. She also says the state could save money and lives by intervening sooner in situations involving addiction, mental illness, and intimate partner violence.
In 2017 and 2018 Jenkins worked with House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade (R-Stanford) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers to craft a sweeping overhaul of the state's adoption and child welfare systems. House Bill 1 passed the lower chamber on a 94-1 vote, and cleared the Senate, 38-0. Jenkins says that bill provides a model for how lawmakers can work together.
“The best policy does come when you sit around a table with people you don’t agree [with] and you exchange ideas and everybody moves a little bit,” she says.
Despite the reforms of HB 1, some 10,000 Kentucky children remain in state care. Jenkins says it will take years to overcome the far-reaching social ills that drug addiction and poverty have inflicted on families. She says lawmakers must also tread carefully in passing new legislation that may inadvertently impact children. For example, she fears immigration proposals before the 2020 General Assembly could result in more immigrants to be incarcerated. If that occurs, Jenkins wonders what could happen to those children left without a caregiver or breadwinner.
As she starts her 26th year in Frankfort, Jenkins says she still gets excited at the start of each legislative session. She describes as being like the first day of school when you're able to catch up with old friends you haven't seen for a while. As the daughter of two public servants – her father was a mayor of Shively, and her mother worked for Jefferson County government – Jenkins says she also enjoys being able to represent her constituents and lead her caucus.
“You can't walk into that chamber without feeling the history there,” she says, “and the honor and the responsibility that has been afforded to you by your district to come and be their voice there.”