Journal-Times (Grayson, KY)

January 5, 2011

Things to watch in the 2011 General Assembly

By Ronnie Ellis - CNHI
CNHI

Jan. 5, 2011 — Happy New Year.

Let’s look ahead to the 2011 General Assembly. I avoid predictions (when I get them wrong my smart-aleck friends remind me) but here are some things to watch. Senate Republicans want to pass several bills in the first week while House Democrats seem content with a slower pace. Democrats in both chambers must choose their leaders.

In the Senate where there’s a tight race among Democrats for minority leader. Former Gov. Julian Carroll wants to wage political battle with Senate pres- ident and gubernatorial candidate David Williams. Sen. R.J. Palmer might represent a more conciliatory voice. With Republicans in firm control, the difference will be in tenor not in result. Republicans have a big enough majority to pass what they wish. But Democrats control the House.

Williams insists his agenda is unrelated to his candidacy. He’s previously championed pension reform and last year the Senate voted on a constitutional amendment that would claim a state prerogative to object to federal legislation. But that was for benefit of the base and so is much of this year’s agenda, including immigration and tax reform. Some lawmakers have been asking for action on both for years, but nothing ever happens.

In the House, former Speaker Jody Richards is running against Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark. The talk is Whip John Will Stacy and Caucus Chairman Bob Damron could have challengers. Speaker Greg Stumbo and majority leader Rocky Adkins appear to have no opposition and Republican Minority Leader Jeff Hoover appears secure. But Republican Caucus Chair Bob DeWeese and Whip David Floyd may face challenges.

Stumbo doesn’t expect the House to live by Williams’ schedule and likely will use the first week for organization of committees. Nor does he sound like the House has an ambitious agenda for the short session. He mentioned raising the drop-out age and maybe some corrections reform but didn’t seem excited about Williams’ bills. He noted with a wry smile that “none of us over here are running for governor.” Gov. Steve Beshear previously announced a limited agenda — though it’s not clear lawmakers were listening.

Many think the session won’t be productive with Williams running for governor against Beshear (assuming Williams gets by Phil Moffett in the Republican Primary). Legislative staff privately roll their eyes and say no one is looking forward to the session. Several lawmakers from both parties feel the same way.

Lawmakers ought to act on corrections reform. The Pew Center and a task force with members from both parties have been working on recommendations to cut prison populations and costs.

Mostly they focus on probation and parole, but if lawmakers want to make a real difference, they’ll tackle the enhanced sentences they’ve passed over the years.

Prosecutors oppose that but the longer sentences do little to increase public safety and may actually diminish it. The enhancements are used primarily as threats by prosecutors in plea bargains — which is why only a tiny percentage of criminal cases actually go before a jury.

Most lawmakers understand this. But that doesn’t mean they have the political courage to change it. The state needs tax reform, but there’s no agreement on how to do it.

A Republican proposal to post spending and tax bills 48 hours before a vote is an overdue idea but don’t hold your breath.

The session hasn’t begun but already there is a sense of weariness.

At least it’s a short session, scheduled to adjourn March 22. If lawmakers accomplish anything significant, it will indeed be a happy new year.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com.