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March 27, 2012

Take Me To Your Leader

Facts, rumors and political innuendo

House Speaker Greg Stumbo banged his gavel, temporarily adjourning the state House of Representatives so that the legislators could address a pressing matter: taking pictures with and collecting the autograph of Ernie Brown Jr., aka “Turtleman,” the toothless snapping turtle-catching star of the Animal Planet reality show “Call of the Wildman.”

A sight like the Turtleman dancing, flashing hand signs and yelping in front of the full House and Senate during his introduction is actually more common than witnessing actual debate on legislation in this General Assembly session.

Whether it is introductions of middle school cheerleading squads, a performance of a Billy Joel song by a local quartet, or a penguin from the Newport Aquarium defecating next to Senate President David Williams, on some days, Frankfort legislators have spent more time in chambers greeting visitors than doing their job.

And with the clock ticking on the final days of the current session — in a state mired with financial crisis, high unemployment and drug abuse — they have few accomplishments to show for their work.

So far, only four bills have been passed by both chambers and signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear. Three of them dealt with the constitutionally required redistricting — which elicited a partisan and vindictive plan that was thrown out in court. That leaves the only new law to come from this session as one requiring that publicly displayed POW/MIA flags be made in America. So there’s that.

The final days of the session will likely be devoted to their other constitutionally required duty, finalizing a two-year budget. While a conference committee tries to hammer out differences between the House and Senate budget this week, scores of other legislation that has passed one of the two chambers seems destined to go nowhere until next year.

Why? By their own admission, because they just didn’t have time to get to it.

Then again, if the House and Senate can’t come to a compromise on the budget — which, if recent history is any indicator, is quite possible — they’ll have to meet in a special session, where they’ll get even more time to do the work of the people, at around $350 a day each.

The budget, which will slash more government services and money from higher education, highlights one of the pressing needs that Frankfort once again didn’t have the time or will to address: tax reform.

The legislation of Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, and Rep. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, seeking to modernize Kentucky’s system of taxation to address declining revenue, was once again passed over. But Gov. Beshear did call for yet another tax reform task force, whose findings will likely be lauded as important, then ignored.

Though committees have green-lighted many pieces of legislation that subsequently passed through either the full House or Senate, such measures were then destined to die in the other chamber.

Facing long odds, HCR 173 — which assigns a task force to reform the state’s death penalty system, following a withering rebuke by the American Bar Association — finally passed in the House last week by a wide margin, but is likely to be ignored by the Senate. Likewise, HB 70 — restoring the voting rights of nonviolent felons who have served their time — once again passed easily through the House, only to get the cold shoulder on the other side of the capitol.

Then again, for those who respect the liberty of women as well as men, some legislation is best left on the cutting room floor of partisan gridlock. The Senate once again passed legislation mandating ultrasounds and waiting periods for those seeking constitutionally protected abortions, though both went down in House committee.

Other proposed legislation never got out of House committee, due to either the culture war or powerful lobbying interests. Bills cracking down on school bullying and protecting dating partners from domestic violence were once again passed over, likely out of fear that this would treat homosexuals like citizens worthy of protection, or lead to those vindictive women tying up the courts with claims of abuse.

Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian’s practical bill to diversify Kentucky’s sources of energy never made it out of committee, nor did fellow Louisville Rep. Darryl Owens’ bill seeking to cap the annualized interest on payday loans. Considering the money and lobbying power of the coal and payday loan industry, and their influence among Democratic leadership, this shouldn’t shock anyone.

Many in both parties hoped this session would bring legislation cracking down on the epidemics of meth production and prescription pain-pill mills. However, despite a great deal of effort, such legislation hasn’t gone as smoothly as hoped, and there may not be enough time this week to hammer out an agreement that isn’t watered down into irrelevance.

Still, there have been dozens of bills that sailed through both chambers, though these are mostly insignificant and uncontroversial bills that passed unanimously, like creating a “Coal Truck Driver Day.”

And what about Gov. Beshear? The only time most legislators have seen the governor since he addressed the General Assembly in January was when he testified before a Senate committee on his prized goal: expanded gambling. Much like virtually every item on his legislative agenda over the last five years, the bill went down to a blazing defeat in the Senate, along with the horse industry’s hopes of staying competitive with other states.

Many legislators are wondering what’s behind Beshear’s disinterest, and whether he’s simply given up. Whatever the reason, Beshear has his hands full during this very important week: appearing on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” to talk about the Kentucky-Louisville basketball game. Priorities.

When David Williams adjourned the Senate early on a Thursday in March so he could catch his flight to New Orleans and watch Kentucky play in the SEC Tournament, fellow Republican Sen. Tom Buford echoed those sentiments to The Courier-Journal’s Joe Gerth: “It shows where our priorities are, and they ain’t here.”

Williams told Gerth: “Go ahead, write a bad story about me. I don’t give a rat’s ass.”

Frankfort could yet surprise us this week, quickly hammering out a budget deal and moving to pass bills that have been languishing before the shot clock runs out.

Until then, many Kentuckians might be justified in thinking that leadership in both parties share Williams’ sentiments.