Sunday, April 9, 2017

Senate Health and Welfare Chair Julie Raque Adams, a Republican moderate from Louisville, had a banner session

Sen. Julie Raque Adams
By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The term "public servant" comes to mind when state Sen. Julie Raque Adams starts talking about being a legislator, especially when she mentions the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which she chairs.

"I love it," Adams said. "I love every minute of it and I feel very blessed to do this job."

Adams, a Louisville Republican, has chaired the Senate's health committee for three years and calls it "the best committee in the whole legislature."

She added, "It is the committee where you can really touch individuals as well as groups, and that is very important to me. I'm a big believer that if I'm going to take time away from my family to do a job like this, I want to feel as if I'm touching someone, or helping someone or changing someone's situation."

Adams had a banner legislative session. She got a smoking-related bill passed, as well as two pieces of legislation that had been introduced for years, one after it had been vetoed by Gov. Matt Bevin.

"I really felt like I brought a lot of really significant issues to the table and I feel very proud that I was able to get a lot of them passed," she said.

Smoking, mental health and DUIs

Passing any kind of smoke-free legislation in Kentucky has proven to be a monumental task, especially since Bevin has said smoking bans should be local issues.  

Despite polling that says 71 percent of Kentucky adults support a statewide smoking ban and 85 percent support tobacco-free schools, for the first time in six years a smoking ban wasn't even introduced, and a Senate bill to make all Kentucky schools tobacco-free died in the House. 

But Adams, who is often a co-sponsor of anti-tobacco legislation, filed a bill this session aimed at decreasing the state's high smoking rates by requiring all Kentucky health plans, including Medicaid, to provide barrier-free access to all federally approved smoking-cessation treatments. It passed.

"The smoking-cessation bill was tricky only in the sense that most people believed that I was bringing another smoke-free ban because the word smoking was in there," Adams said. The bill leaves the responsibility with smokers, while assuring that they have the tools they need to help them quit, she said. 

Another victory for Adams was the General Assembly's override of Bevin's veto of "Tim's Law," legislation she sponsored that lets judges order mentally ill adults who meet strict criteria into an "assisted outpatient treatment" program, and confine them if they don't comply. This was the fifth year the measure had been introduced.

The legislation is called "Tim's Law" for Tim Morton, a Lexington schizophrenic whose mother had him hospitalized involuntarily 37 times to get him the treatment he needed. He died in 2014. 

Another long-introduced measure that finally passed was House Bill 222, which eliminates "shock probation" for those who kill someone while driving drunk. Adams, who carried the bill in the Senate for Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, said she became involved with the bill soon after she was elected to the House, after learning about a girl who was killed in Seneca Park by a drunken driver who only served two months before being granted shock probation. 

A moderate, and now less of a horse trader

Adams, always the optimist, said most legislators are there to do the "right thing."

"Even though politicians get a really bad rap, particularly nowadays in this toxic environment, I think that most of the people here, along with me, are really here because we are trying to do the right thing. And so I hope that Frankfort does not turn into Washington, D.C., because we are making progress and I think we are helping people."

Asked if  her comments would be different if Democrats were in control, Adams said she has always believed, and still hopes, that lawmakers are all there to serve Kentucky and should be able to work together. She recalled serving two terms under Democratic control in the House before becoming a senator.

"When I was in the House under Speaker Stumbo, I still got some things done and I think the reason is because I was not a bomb thrower," she said. "I was respectful. I worked with them under their structure that they had established. . . . You have to pick and choose your battles."

Adams said it's been easier to get things done in the Senate health committee since Republicans took control of the House because she can prioritize and collaborate on issues with Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Florence, chair of the House's health committee.

Adams called the change a "breath of fresh air," saying they no longer had to be so secretive or always be dealing in a "horse trade" to get things done. "And so, it's a very positive energy now that I feel in our synergies, in our chairmanships," she said.

Senate Democrats, long in the minority, like Adams. "She treats everybody fairly and I have not found her to use the weight as her chairman to cut people off," said Sen. Julian Carroll of Frankfort, a former governor who is on the health committee. "She does her best to make certain that everybody has an opportunity to be heard. I am extremely complementary of her,"

Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, also on the committee, added persistence to that list of strengths. He said her persistence with the shock-probation bill and her willingness to have open discussion with him about it over the years helped him to finally vote in favor of it.

"She has a very good ability to convince and to make adjustments where they need to be adjusted and to compromise where that needs to be done," Carroll said.

Julian Carroll vounteered, "I consider her, by the way, to be one of the more independent members of her caucus in that she seems to be her own boss without question. She doesn't always agree with leadership and sometimes she votes against leadership."

Adams was the only Republican senator to join all Senate Democrats in voting against HB 281, which would have stripped the power from the attorney general (now a Democrat) to file civil lawsuits or handle appeals on behalf of the state, and instead award those powers to the governor (now a Republican).

"I think there is a time sometimes to toe the party line," she said, "and there are times where my constituency expects me to be an independent voice, and so I try to meet all of those expectations." She said she absolutely is a Republican, and is pro-life.

Adams is less conservative on some issues than most Republican senators, and was the only GOP co-sponsor of a bill to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under the state civil-rights law.

The civics teacher

"I love first of all being a voice for those who are voiceless because if you look at so many of the issues we deal with, they are not that interesting to a lot of people and they are difficult and they are sad and they are hard, and I almost think it takes a mom to be that person who steps up for some of those other moms," Adams said.

"And one of the biggest eye-openers for me is the lack of knowledge of how the political process works. . . . I love to take people and I say, 'Here's how it works, and let me hold your hand and let me take you through this process and then maybe we'll see if we can get something done.' I never make any promises, but I always tell them, 'I'll listen and I'll help you and I will be your advocate and we'll navigate this together."

Adams said she has surprised some constituents with how far she will go, having good ideas put into bill form for review. "I'll e-mail it back to them and they will say, ' Oh my gosh, you mean my idea is actually in bill form?' . . . I think the best ideas come from the people that you represent."

And they can come from anywhere. "My husband sometimes won't let me go to the grocery store because he says Kroger is my campaign headquarters," Adams said. "Every line, they are like 'Hey, I've been meaning to call you about this.'"

Looking ahead

Looking ahead to the 2018 legislative session, Adams said topics on the horizon include medical marijuana, creating real access to cannabidiol oil in Kentucky, finding more ways to address addiction and recovery, and gun violence.

She said some are surprised when she talks about gun violence as a public-health issue, a view not commonly held by many Republicans.

"I truly think that the violence that we are experiencing in our state, and particularly  in Louisville, rises to the level of a public-health issue," she said. asked if she was talking about gun-control measures, she said, "I think we need to have that conversation."

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