December 30, 2013

No money, mo' problems

A preview of the 2014 General Assembly

The 60-day 2014 session of Kentucky’s General Assembly begins Jan. 7, where the most pressing goal will be passing a two-year budget for the state government. While the General Assembly typically involves the same routine — failing to address many of the major problems facing Kentucky due to political standoffs and insufficient revenue — there’s always the remote chance that they’ll deliver a pleasant surprise or two.

Here’s our preview of what to look for in Frankfort.

BUDGET

The bulk of time in this year’s session of the General Assembly is expected to be devoted to ironing out a two-year budget for the state, and much like every year since the economy tanked in 2008, there’s not enough revenue to meet the full needs of government services and obligations. While State Budget Director Jane Driskell recently estimated an additional $230 million in revenue for the next fiscal year, that doesn’t come close to the amount needed for that year.

First, due to a bill passed in the 2013 session, the legislature pledged to finally fully fund the pension system for state workers this year — after years of raiding the funds — which will amount to roughly $100 million in extra spending. Secondly, Medicaid costs are expected to grow this year by $100-$150 million.

If pensions and Medicaid eat up the additional revenue, there will be none left to restore more than $100 million in previous cuts to K-12 education and social services, let alone increasing funds for education and pay raises for state workers and teachers. Gov. Steve Beshear has said that increasing funds for education is a key priority for him this session, but without an increase in revenue, that would necessitate more cuts to the budget elsewhere.

But such an increase in revenue by reforming Kentucky’s tax code remains a long-shot. Despite recommendations of Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson’s Tax Commission to tax more services and increase revenue, Republicans are mostly opposed to any change that isn’t revenue neutral, and many Democrats aren’t willing to stick their neck out on taxes during an election year where their House majority hangs in the balance.

There’s also the possibility of raising state revenue with expanded gaming and casinos, which has notoriously failed over the last six years in the General Assembly. Even if a constitutional amendment finally passes the legislature and is approved by voters in a state referendum this fall, such new revenues wouldn’t kick in until 2016. And while support for expanded gaming has increased in the legislature, continued fighting over the number and location of casinos — as well as where such revenue would be directed among the horse industry and state budget — could cripple an agreement from passing, as it did in 2013.

Unless this session brings about an unexpected breakthrough, what Kentucky is likely left with is another budget scramble for the little money that’s available and bracing for more starving of vital government programs and services.

PENSIONS AND LABOR

While the General Assembly pledged to fully fund public pensions this year, such a requirement is not set in stone, and after years of having their funds raided, labor groups are not 100 percent certain the legislature will make good on their promise once the budget crunching is underway.

Labor unions are also wary of a “transparency” bill being pushed by Republicans in both chambers, which would make a public list of all state retirees’ pensions. AFL-CIO president Bill Londrigan says that this is a ploy to villainize and scapegoat state workers, easing the way for future pension cuts.

Londrigan and unions are also wary of so-called “right to work” legislation, which would ban mandatory union dues and gut union membership, as it has in other states that passed such a law. This legislation remains extremely unlikely to make its way out of the Democratic House, with Republicans hoping this fall’s elections will provide them this opportunity — and many others — in 2015.

LOUISVILLE

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer remains the most prominent backer of legislation giving local governments the option to enact a short-term 1-percent increase in sales taxes, with those proceeds directed to a specific project. Local Investments For Transformation (LIFT) has the backing of prominent business groups and mayors but faces many hurdles in order to become a reality. LIFT would have to pass with a supermajority in order for the constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot and approved through a state referendum, and then passed by elected bodies and voters in a locality that chooses to pursue it.

But in order to make it past the first step of the General Assembly, LIFT will have to overcome Republican legislators’ wariness of tax increases, as well as skepticism of some liberal Democrats, such as Rep. Jim Wayne of Louisville, who view it as a possible regressive tax on the poor. (Wayne is sponsoring a bill that would provide tax credits to low-income workers who must commute across the forthcoming tolled bridges over the Ohio River into Indiana.)

The Louisville Metro Council recently passed a resolution asking the state to pass legislation strengthening its Ethics Commission by giving it subpoena power, a shortcoming made apparent in the ethics trials of late Councilwoman Judy Green and current Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, D-2. Despite having widespread support in the 2013 General Assembly, the measure never came up for a vote in the House — but most expect that this small step in the direction of accountability will pass this year.

VOTINGS RIGHTS

Year after year, the Democratic House easily passes legislation to automatically restore the voting rights of former non-violent felons before it ultimately dies in the Republican-led Senate. However, Sen. Rand Paul’s statements earlier this year that he would support and perhaps lobby for this legislation to his fellow Republicans has led to increased optimism in this session.

However, a “catch” appears to have been floated by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, where the Senate would only pass such a bill if it was attached to legislation mandating a picture identification in order to vote. Such voter ID laws have been passed by Republicans in other states, with some not even hiding their intent: to make it more difficult for historically Democratic constituencies to vote. If Senate Republicans follow through with such a strategy, Democrats are unlikely to go along, and the bipartisan restoration of voting-rights legislation could once again be left behind.

DRUGS AND PENAL REFORM

With recent legislation cracking down on the trade of meth and prescription pain pills, heroin abuse has skyrocketed in their place. Bipartisan legislation has been filed by Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, and Sen. Katie Stine, R-Southgate, along with the support of Attorney General Jack Conway, to push more offenders into treatment instead of incarceration, while increasing penalties for large-scale traffickers of the drug.

Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, will once again sponsor legislation to allow medical marijuana in Kentucky, but now he might have key allies for the initiative in the House. Rep. Tom Burch of Louisville, the Health & Welfare Committee chairman, tells LEO that his committee will give a companion bill a hearing in the first week of the session and sounds optimistic that it might pass.

Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, has pre-filed legislation to allow the expungement of criminal records for low-level felony offenders, making it easier for those people to not just find employment, but vote. Rand Paul has spoken a good deal about the Drug War’s consequences for such offenders, and if he follows through by pushing Republicans in the Senate, the bill may have a fighting chance.

CULTURE WARS

For nearly every session over the past decade, so-called “informed consent” legislation regulating abortion — including mandatory ultrasound procedures, an in-person visit to the doctor 24 hours before the procedure, and a post-20-week ban — has come an eyelash away from passing, but failed. Low-income and rural women in Kentucky already have extremely limited access to abortion, which this legislation would simply compound — quite intentionally. Once again, the fate of these bills will be determined by the makeup of the House Health & Welfare Committee and will come down to the wire. If any pass the committee, they will almost certainly become law.

One bill that has never come close to passing, or even been voted on in committee, is Rep. Mary Lou Marzian’s, D-Louisville, bill to pass a statewide LGBT fairness law, prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Rep. Tilley, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, says the bill will be discussed in the Democratic caucus, and “it might be time to discuss it” in his committee. Even if the bill manages to make it through the House — a long-shot — it would assumedly die in the Senate. Federal legislation banning such discrimination in all 50 states may beat Kentucky to it, though.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

While emergency protective court orders are available for victims of domestic violence who are married to their abusers, the same protection is not available for dating partners who do not live together — making Kentucky one of the few states not to do so. While this legislation — sponsored by Rep. Tilley and Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively — passed the full House and a Senate committee easily last session, it did not come up for a vote in the full Senate.

Domestic violence advocates are confident the legislation will pass this session, as Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, is a strong advocate for the bill as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and may convince his caucus to advance the bill to the full chamber for a vote.

ENVIRONMENT AND ENERGY

If there’s an issue where a legislator’s party affiliation has no correlation with their policy position this session, it would be over the proposed Bluegrass Pipeline. The pipeline — which would transport natural gas liquids from fracking sites in the Northeast down to the Gulf of Mexico — has attracted fierce opposition from central Kentucky communities it would cross, both because of environmental concerns and fear that the company will attempt to acquire their land through eminent domain.

Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, and Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, have pre-filed bills to limit the scope of companies with the right to pursue eminent domain, which should find allies among the environmentalist wing of Democratic legislators and property-rights conservatives. However, for those legislators not in the path of the pipeline, but perhaps in the path of lobbying from a powerful industry, they may be inclined to avoid the wrath of a company claiming to provide jobs and energy independence in a safe manner.

And speaking of the natural gas industry — whose abundant new supply of cheap liquid is devastating the coal industry as power plants switch to natural gas — a few legislators may directly take them on in the name of coal. Rep. Jim Gooch, R-Providence, has pre-filed a bill that would openly discriminate against plants wanting to switch to natural gas. There’s also talk of a movement to reform the Public Service Commission so that it doesn’t have to recommend the cheapest consumer option for power, which increasingly is a switch from coal to natural gas.

In the wake of the SOAR Summit in Pikeville earlier this month on diversifying the rapidly declining economy of Appalachia, there will likely be a diverse number of projects in the region that local legislators seek funding for, such as a four-lane Mountain Parkway. Gov. Beshear and Congressman Hal Rogers may reveal a much more comprehensive strategy as the new year begins, particularly concerning how coal severance funds are used.

While Rep. Marzian’s Clean Energy Opportunity Act — seeking to diversify Kentucky’s energy portfolio and provide incentives for clean energy projects — might seem to fit perfectly into SOAR’s stated goals, we’d be shocked if the General Assembly got on board with such a rational strategy so soon.

WTF?

And then there’s the strange bills …

Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, has pre-filed a bill to save Kentucky from the dastardly “Agenda 21” of the United Nations and its international plan for tyranny. Rep. King Kim, R-Harrodsburg, pre-filed a bill to ensure that our constitutional rights “take precedence over the application of any foreign law in any judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding” — you know, Sharia Law.

One would assume that such paranoid bills would not stand any chance of passing both chambers to become law, but considering the “religious freedom bill” that passed last session — to protect us from the imaginary persecution of Christians in Kentucky — it might not be safe to overestimate our General Assembly.

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