Republicans, in first day of House control, remove Democratic Rep. Tom Burch from health panel that he chaired for 30 years

By Al Cross and Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT — State Rep. Tom Burch has not only lost the chair of the House health committee, which he led for 30 years, he isn’t even on the committee.

Rules changes approved in a party-line vote on the first day of Republican control of the House since 1921 allowed GOP leaders to remove Burch, a Louisville Democrat, from the committee. Previous rules allowed members to designate one committee membership that could not be taken from them.

The leaders also removed Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, from the budget committee, which he had chaired for several years. “We wanted to make sure that our new committee chairs felt totally comfortable,” House Speaker Jeff Hoover told reporters after his first session. But he noted that Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg, remains chair of the Banking and Insurance Committee. It deals with fewer controversial subjects.

Rep. Tom Burch

Asked why Burch was removed from the health panel, Hoover said, “Chairman Burch has a longstanding career here, which I respect and our members respect, but those of you who have covered that committee know that he can be somewhat contentious, maybe cantankerous, but I respect him tremendously as a person. I respect his passion. But we thought, because of his longstanding tenure on that committee, and because so many of our members had expressed concern about him remaining on that committee, that it was better that he not continue to serve on that committee.”

Burch disagreed.

“They have removed the most qualified person . . . who knows the issues and the problems it takes to chair that committee,” he said in an interview Wednesday, Jan. 4. He added later, “I would have liked to have served on that committee, I think I would have made a contribution.”

Burch said he didn’t have the same passion for his new committees. He is on the House Judiciary, State Government and Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection committees.

“That was my love of being in the legislature, being on the Health and Welfare Committee,” he said. “This is the first time, this morning, that I didn’t want to come to work. It’s the first time and I don’t like that feeling. This has sort of taken the joy out.”

The rules changes also renamed the panel the Committee on Health and Family Services; its name had been Health and Welfare.

As chair, Burch refused to let the committee consider most anti-abortion bills. Republicans in the Senate are moving a bill to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and those in the House are moving one to require an ultrasound examination before an abortion. However, the latter bill was sent to the Judiciary Committee, not the Health and Family Services Committee.

Asked why, Hoover said the new chair of the health committee, Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Burlington, wanted to sponsor the bill, and sending to to Judiciary meant that “she could present the bill and not have to present it in her own committee.”

The Judiciary Committee meeting passed the ultrasound bill (House Bill 2) 14-5 Wednesday, but the discussion became a bit contentious when Chairman Joseph Fischer, R-Fort Thomas, rapped his gavel repeatedly and interrupted Burch as he made comments in response to Wuchner’s answer to his question of whether she had ever visited an abortion clinic. She said she had not.

Fisher told Burch he could have one more question, but ended up repeatedly banging his gavel again while Burch was talking and firmly told him to ask the question.

Burch asked Wuchner, “Why are we doing this when women are already being offered that service in the clinic itself? They have to have an ultrasound in order — “

At that point, Burch was stopped by wild applause from the audience.

A bit later,  Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, asked a third question without any interruption from Fischer and several people in the crowd yelled, “One question? One question?”

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