Ronnie Ellis

Ronnie Ellis

Legislature moves slowing in session's first days

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Lawmakers have been in town for nine days, but it may be another 11 before anything happens.

Jan. 29 is the date for two key events – the filing deadline for candidates who want to challenge those incumbent lawmakers and the date when Gov. Steve Beshear will offer his budget proposals to the legislature. Legislators usually dawdle during this period, speculating in hallways about the prospects for legislation and the budget, but taking little concrete action on major issues or controversial bills until the filing deadline. They don’t want to give prospective opponents any campaign ammunition.

But the lack of action seems more pronounced this year. Lawmakers – at least in the House which promised last year to undertake a serious discussion of the problems confronting state retirement systems – say they’re waiting for Beshear’s proposals. They’re waiting for him to suggest an austere budget with anticipated deep cuts to deal with revenue shortfalls. And most of all, they wait to see what he’ll propose in the way of a constitutional amendment to expand gambling.

They’ve begun talking openly in hallways – and when reporters press them – about a possible increase in the cigarette taxes. They express real concern over potential cuts in education funding. They ask reporters what they think Beshear will propose. But in reality, little is happening – at least out in the open. By the time they get down to the real work, close to a fourth of the 2008 session will have elapsed. So, expect a wild crush of action in the final days.

When it comes, remember this is supposed to be the deliberative branch of government.

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Things may be operating more efficiently on the first floor where the governor’s office is located. But they’re not operating any more openly. The governor and his spokespeople talk of painful budget cuts, Beshear declares that any expanded gambling amendment will be “my” bill; and he regularly offers increasingly dreary assessments of the state’s financial health. But so far, specifics are missing.

And despite his talk about bi-partisanship, things aren’t going very well with Republican leaders of the Senate. That’s a two-way street: Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, is watching for perceived slights or evidence Beshear isn’t serious about cooperating. But the governor has also operated at times with some high-handedness. And he’s made no secret he wants to wrest control of the upper chamber from Williams and Republicans.

But as a national recession looms (or has begun), revenue estimates get gloomier and nerves become frayed, as university presidents, advocates for the public schools and the poor and disabled decry the funding cuts they face, the work before lawmakers and the governor won’t get easier. They may not have any choice but to work together to solve some of the problems confronting them. Unfortunately, their history of doing that isn’t very encouraging.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort, Ky. He may be contacted by email at rellis@cnhi.com.





A review of the past week in the 2008 General Assembly

FRANKFORT, Ky. — In his Monday evening State of the Commonwealth address, Gov. Steve Beshear talked of grim budget realities and called for innovative ways of dealing with them. But there wasn’t much innovation – or action of any kind – in the second week of the 2008 General Assembly.

By the end of the week, an estimate of revenues from expanded gambling based on a bill offered previously suggested a smaller return than Beshear has talked about and some lawmakers were thinking it might be better to raise cigarette taxes than to cut funding for education.

A Legislative Research Commission study, based on a bill introduced last year by Rep. Larry Clark, D-Louisville, suggested expanded gambling would produce about $314 million of annual revenue for the state – compared with the $500 million which Beshear has said it will produce.

Sen. Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, the Majority Leader in the Senate, said at that amount the state would be better off passing on the gambling and instead addressing the problem of state pension systems.

“Frankly, no one knows how much money casinos will bring in,” responded House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green. “Unless you know exactly how many (casinos) there will be.”

And some lawmakers began to talk cautiously about the possibility of increasing the cigarette tax. Although sentiment for the move seems to be growing in the House as an alternative to steep cutbacks in education funding, comments from some key Senators indicate it might not fly in that chamber.

Kelly said he discerns little support for increasing taxes in the Senate. Minority Leader Ed Worley, D-Richmond, however, said increasing the tax is preferable to cutting education.

“I think it depends on how deep the cuts are,” Worley said. “And if they get into (grades) K through 12, then I think we need to look at the option of increasing the cigarette tax.”



LEGISLATIVE ACTION:

One bill passed one chamber – a bill to eliminate the runoff provision for gubernatorial primaries. The bill is likely to pass in the House as well because both chambers were prepared to pass the measure in the last session, but the House balked for fears some might see the move in the midst of last year’s primary as “changing the rules in the middle of the game.” The runoff provision was part of a larger election reform package passed in the early 90s but the criteria for forcing a runoff – failure of any primary candidate to garner at least 40 percent of the vote – never happened.

Another Senate measure which failed to pass the House in the previous session cleared the Senate Education Committee this week. SB 2 would provide funding to encourage more middle and high school students to take rigorous advanced placement classes in math and science. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray, who has introduced similar legislation in the past which cleared the Senate but died in the House. This year’s bill by Winters deletes some pay incentives for math and science teachers to which KEA and others objected in the past.

House Bill 111, sponsored by Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, would allow universities to issue bonds, using their own funds, to cover various capital projects. Damron has introduced the measure before and it’s passed the House but failed to gain passage in the Senate. This year’s bill would still require ultimate approval by the General Assembly but the bonds would not count against the state’s debt or bond ratings.

House Bill 250, sponsored by Rep. John Vincent, R-Ashland, and Rep. Mike Cherry, D-Princeton, would strengthen the executive branch ethics regulations and change the way members of the Ethics Commission are appointed, allowing the auditor and attorney general submit names for some of the positions from which the governor would have to choose.

All those bills now go to the floor of the respective chamber.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort, Ky. He may be contacted by email at rellis@cnhi.com.

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