Democratic and Republican legislators crammed into a conference room of the state Capitol last Thursday, with bipartisan backslapping and smiles that have been a rarity in recent years.
Before Gov. Steve Beshear and various university presidents would announce $363 million in campus construction projects — which the General Assembly will presumably allow to go forward this year — newly elected Republican Senate President Robert Stivers joked with legislators and reporters about the shiny, happy new era in Frankfort.
And at least on the surface, Stivers appeared to be correct. The first week of the General Assembly session — and the first in 14 years without the polarizing David Williams at the helm of the Senate — was consumed with talk and gestures signaling Frankfort was ready to move past the rancorous partisan warfare of the past and come together to address big problems.
But as the General Assembly now breaks for nearly a month — set to resume Feb. 5 — the fact remains that the House and Senate are still far apart when it comes to the most pressing policies, which might be kicked down the road once again.
Most in Frankfort agree the three largest responsibilities are tax and pension reform (with task forces from last year supplying recommendations on both) and constitutionally obligated redistricting, which failed in grand fashion last year with a lawsuit blocking the transparently partisan maps for new legislative districts. But last week made clear that leaders have not yet come to a consensus on how or when to do all three.
For redistricting, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, prefers to settle the matter now, but Stivers and Beshear — citing the short 30-day off-year session — say this would take time away from other issues and want it to be addressed in a special session later this year.
On tax reform, wide differences remain between both parties on the recommendations of Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson’s tax commission. The General Assembly would also need a 60 percent supermajority in each chamber to pass any new revenues in the short session, adding to the fear that tax reform, once again, will be postponed.
This required supermajority and lack of tax reform also throws a wrench into pension reform, as new sources of revenue would be required to make up for the $33 billion in unfunded liabilities toward the retirement funds of state workers. While there appears to be some bipartisan support for reforms that would need a simple majority, unions are critical of several task force recommendations, and Stumbo is reluctant to go forward until the funding mechanism can be worked out. He tells LEO it is possible the General Assembly could fail to pass any legislation addressing these three issues this session, but he hopes that if this is the case, at least a “dialogue” will begin.
Considering this dialogue on tax and pension reform has been going on for years, and the assumed reluctance of legislators to make hard decisions in the election year of 2014, this shouldn’t put anyone at ease.
In other legislative news, one agenda that is rapidly picking up steam is the legalization of industrial hemp, which has the full support of Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer. The cause picked up a new ally last week in the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, as more Republicans are coming on board.
But roadblocks remain, despite the fact that this measure could be a boom for Kentucky’s agricultural economy. State police oppose legalization, arguing extra resources would be needed to fight marijuana crops that look similar, which is the main source of reluctance among members of both parties. Additionally, even if such legislation passed, the federal government must drop its ban on hemp before Kentucky could go forward.
Several newly filed bills and issues related to Louisville made an appearance in the first week as well.
Rep. Jim Wayne along with six other Louisville Democrats filed HB 129, which would exempt Kentuckians who work in Indiana and make less than $25,000 a year from forthcoming bridge tolls. Wayne estimates that such people would save roughly $500 per year with tax credits, with TARC buses also exempt in the bill, easing public transportation budgets.
Two pieces of legislation filed by Louisville House members address concerns raised by the sexual assault case of Savannah Dietrich that made national headlines.
Republican Kevin Bratcher filed HB 115, which would allow a crime victim to publicly discuss the case during a juvenile court proceeding. Dietrich was threatened with contempt of court last year for tweeting the names of her attackers after she was frustrated with their light sentence.
“If it doesn’t violate somebody else’s rights, then you should be able to talk,” Bratcher says. “Because it really made me sick that (Dietrich) could be victimized like that and also have to stay quiet about it.”
Democrat Joni Jenkins of Louisville filed HB 106, which increases the penalties for criminal sexual abuse where penetration not falling within the technical scope of rape or sodomy occurs. Jenkins tells LEO she’s spoken with the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and hopes the bill can get a hearing.
Louisville Republican Sen. Julie Denton filed two bills targeting the Affordable Care Act, one prohibiting the state from operating a health insurance exchange, and one prohibiting the expansion of Medicaid under the act unless authorized by the General Assembly.
While the latter measure should pass the Republican-dominated Senate — and please her Republican base — House Democrats have declared her bill dead on arrival. The Beshear administration argues this decision is up to the governor, and he has not yet decided whether to expand Medicaid services to roughly 300,000 low-income Kentuckians, with the overwhelming majority of costs paid for by the federal government.
While Republicans in Frankfort will continue efforts to derail “Obamacare,” other Republicans around the country are not following suit. Jan Brewer, the far-right Republican governor of Arizona, announced this week they would expand Medicaid, citing the “hidden tax” of uncompensated care at hospitals.