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January 4, 2012

Frankfort forecast

Can legislators overcome stormy partisan politics during the 2012 General Assembly?

The 2012 General Assembly began Jan. 3, and it remains to be seen whether this new session will result in more of the same — rancorous partisan gridlock and obstructionism — or the two parties coming together to do something about problems plaguing the commonwealth.

At the forefront of this mystery are rivals whose toxic relationship have dominated headlines over the last four years, culminating in their gubernatorial race last year: Gov. Steve Beshear and state Sen. David Williams.

Beshear will make his state of the commonwealth address this evening, presumably laying out his agenda, which he didn’t bother to share while campaigning last year. And the behavior of the politically emasculated (yet still Senate president) Williams is likely to determine the entire session. Will he be a reformed man? And if not, will fellow Republicans in the Senate break free from his iron grip?

Regardless of whether the drama between them continues, Frankfort now begins an important 60-day session that will tackle issues vital to the future of the state. Here is a rundown of what you’re likely to see.

Budget

Gov. Beshear boasts of balancing the budget in his first term, but 2012 will reveal what was behind the smoke, mirrors and Band-Aids with which this was accomplished. While Kentucky’s tax revenues are stagnant, expenditures have increased rapidly. This imbalance was offset by $3 billion in federal stimulus, raiding the pensions of state workers (along with mandatory furloughs), borrowing money while pushing debt payments off to future years, and dramatic cuts to state agencies.

With federal assistance dried up and deferred payments now due, this year’s budget cuts will be a brutal task, especially considering the expensive projects being proposed (Louisville’s bridges, Rupp Arena renovation) and the call for an increase in funding to decimated state agencies, such as the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

With the bulk of Kentucky’s budget going toward education, Medicaid and law enforcement — areas that legislators are wary of cutting — figuring out where and how much to cut is sure to be contentious and time-consuming. Beshear will present his budget on Jan. 17, after which the feathers will begin to fly at the capitol.

Tax Reform

Most legislators agree that a necessary step to narrow the gap between state revenues and expenditures is to reform Kentucky’s antiquated tax code. The hard part is getting them to actually follow through with it. Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, and Rep. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, have repeatedly proposed competing tax reform plans that have withered on the vine, largely due to legislators’ — and Beshear’s — reluctance to expand taxes to more services.

Some are more hopeful that tax reform will finally be tackled this year. Gov. Beshear appeared to switch course in his inauguration speech, citing the need for reform, while the budget shortfall may be the impetus to spur legislators into action. However, many remain skeptical of action this year due to most legislators running for re-election and fearing their opponents will accuse them of raising taxes.

Gambling

The magic budget bullet that Beshear ran on in 2007 — expanded gaming — went nowhere in his first term, largely due to the Senate’s vehement opposition. But the political landscape of 2012 has changed, making its passage a real possibility.

Recent polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of Kentuckians want to vote on a constitutional amendment to allow expanding gaming, with a majority supporting it. A dying horse industry and need for additional tax revenue make this option even more attractive. Also, a politically weakened David Williams might lead more Senate Republicans to defect and work with Democrats. Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, has already met with Beshear on the issue, and several Republicans are openly supporting its passage.

But potential pitfalls remain, as the amendment would require a 3/5 majority vote in both chambers, and some Republicans have expressed their doubts if it allows horse tracks to have a “monopoly” on new casinos.

Drugs

Most in law enforcement favor making the key ingredient in methamphetamines — pseudoephedrine in cold medicines — only available with a prescription. This plan failed last year, facing heavy opposition from a powerful pharmaceutical industry and legislators wary of the time and cost it would take for people to go to a doctor every time they have a cold.

Alternative bills would ban its sale to anyone convicted of a meth-related crime and limit the amount that can be purchased, but this wouldn’t stop those people from having others buy medicine for them. A likely compromise bill might require a prescription for hard tablets but not liquid gel caps, as meth cannot be made from the latter.

Prescription pain pills are also an epidemic in rural Kentucky, as unscrupulous doctors at “pill mills” hand out medicine to addicts like they’re trick-or-treaters. There will likely be a bipartisan push for regulation of pain clinics, both monitoring prescriptions given out and the background of their owners.

Rep. Lonnie Napier, R-Lancaster, re-filed legislation requiring drug testing for anyone who receives public assistance, which failed last year. Its chances of passage this year are hindered by the fact that nearly identical legislation in Florida last year was struck down as unconstitutional, and because it would have a hefty price tag. Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, also filed legislation requiring a drug test for unemployed adults receiving vocational training from the state.

Penal Reform

A rare display of bipartisanship last year was the near-unanimous passage of HB 463, which gives nonviolent drug offenders treatment instead of jail time. Democrats will seek to push for further reform, with legislation putting young “status offenders” in diversion programs instead of jail and ending the practice of criminally charging children 10 years old or younger.

Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, has also filed legislation to outlaw the execution of the severely mentally ill. This might not be the only bill aimed at the death penalty, as the American Bar Association recently highlighted Kentucky’s deeply flawed death penalty system and called for its suspension.

Redistricting

The first order of business for the legislature is to approve new redistricting lines for the state legislature and U.S. congressional districts. While the former should fly by easily, the latter might prove to be more difficult. The two preliminary maps of House Speaker Greg Stumbo and state Sen. Damon Thayer varied dramatically, and the 6th District lines might very well determine whether Democrat Ben Chandler is re-elected. If there’s no agreement in January, redistricting could be settled
in the courts.

Dating Violence, Bullying and Gay Rights

One of the failures of “Amanda’s Law” is that it does not include many in dating relationships within the coverage of domestic violence laws, limiting access to emergency protective orders. The bill filed by Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, has passed before easily in the House, but the Senate has declined to take it up. Opponents have argued that women would file orders out of spite, clogging the judicial system, but some think the real reason is that the bill would protect same-sex couples.

Last year, legislation banning the bullying of students based on sexual orientation, race or religion made it easily through a House committee, but was held up by an amendment of Rep. Mike Harmon, R-Danville, allowing verbal bullying of gay students if homosexuality is against one’s religious beliefs. We’ll see if the recent suicide of a bullied gay student in Covington will help Harmon consider “What Would Jesus Do” when the legislation is brought up this session.

A statewide fairness ordinance will also be filed again, though the usual suspects are likely to block the entire state from moving into the 21st century on civil rights.

Payday Loans

Despite polls showing public support and the backing of Christian groups, Rep. Darryl Owens’ bill putting a 36 percent interest cap on payday lenders — who are known to charge up to 400 percent and prey on the vulnerable — died in committee when five Democrats defected. Advocates are hopeful the bill will pick up additional bipartisan support to get through the House this time. However, Cash Express — the largest payday lender in Kentucky — gave large contributions to both parties last year and will likely do so again.

Voting Rights

Lexington Democratic Rep. Jesse Crenshaw’s bill to automatically restore the voting rights of most felons has passed the House easily in recent years, only to be ignored by the Senate. Kentucky remains one of only two states to not automatically restore these rights, and advocates are hopeful that a more independent GOP caucus might give the bill a chance this time.

Energy and Coal

Democrats filing legislation every year to combat the effects of mountaintop removal mining, regulate coal ash, and shift a small percentage of Kentucky’s energy from coal to renewable sources can determine whether their bill will get a hearing based on one factor: whether it is sent to the committee of global warming denier Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence. This is known as the place where legislation protecting the air you breathe and water you drink goes to die. Louisville Democrats Mary Lou Marzian and Joni Jenkins will hope for the best on their legislation, but Beshear and House Democratic leadership are just as likely to tell them to get off King Coal’s back.

Odds and Ends

A General Assembly in Kentucky wouldn’t be complete without some bizarre legislation. Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, has pre-filed legislation requiring restaurants to have less than half of their income come from alcoholic beverages. However, another bill he filed legalizes the sale of another beverage: raw milk.

Democratic Rep. John Will Stacy pre-filed a bill making it a crime to post anonymous speech on the Internet. We’re not sure which aspect of the bill is more absurd: that Stacy thinks it is constitutional, or that Attorney General Jack Conway can enforce it.

And finally, Kentucky has joined the nationwide fad of having a “Caylee’s Law” filed, which makes it a felony to not report your child missing within 12 hours — stemming from the Casey Anthony trial/media orgy. Correction: Actually, five different Caylee’s Laws have been filed. May the best legislator win.