Cooperation Is Key For A Successful 2013 Kentucky Legislative Session

The Kentucky State Capitol.

The Kentucky State Capitol on an optimistic morning.

It’s January again, which means the Kentucky General Assembly is back in session for another round of its own special brand of realty programming.

Political gamesmanship, witticisms and wastes of time are sure to be on display over this short 30-day session, set to end on March 26, but don’t be surprised if it goes into overtime.

Some of the cast members have changed.

Perpetual sourpuss Republican Senate President David Williams took the tempting bait from Gov. Steve Beshear, and accepted a judicial appointment. The vacancy opens the door to Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, to ascend to Senate president. Stivers is a wealthy attorney, who is a serious character, but from a leadership standpoint more approachable and relaxed than the cantankerous Williams.

Taking over Stiver’s Senate majority leader duties will be Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who can flatter with the best of them. This silver-tongued devil is a horse-industry consultant, who sides with Gov. Beshear on wanting to see casino gambling at horse tracks.

On the House side Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, became the first woman elected to a leadership spot in the Kentucky House of Representatives when she defeated former Democratic Caucus Chair Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville. Overly, 46, is an attorney who has served in the House since 2008. She is rumored to be a possible Democratic challenger for the U.S. 6th District House seat recently won by Republican Andy Barr.

The rest of the players remain the same.

With no presidential election to worry about this year, no bitter feelings surrounding a gubernatorial election, and no David Williams to stir the proverbial pot of partisan politics, maybe something will get accomplished.

Revenue and pension questions abound.

Kentucky’s public pension system has been neglected for years. It ranks 49th in the country, trailing only Illinois in terms of unfunded liability.

Kentucky has a whopping 44-percent of the money it needs on hand. That is a shortfall in the neighborhood of $33 billion.

Pension watchdog groups consider anything under 80-percent to be problematic.

With 117,000 current and former state employees guaranteed lifetime pensions by law, any further collapse of the pension system could trigger mandatory tax increases and sap money from already needy areas like public safety and education.

A 2012 legislative task force recommended allocating an extra $327 million in 2015 and increasing that to $1 billion by 2020, but failed to identify where to find that extra cash.

Nothing can get done this session aside from speculation, as any real changes will have to wait until 2014, when the new state budget is taken up.

Likely the solution will combine newfound tax revenue along with decreases in certain elements of the benefits package currently enjoyed by state retirees.

Gov. Beshear has already cut $1.6 billion in spending during his tenure, leaving meager fat to trim.

This supplemental pension payment will require a new revenue stream.

The problem for Kentucky is it spends more money than it makes in taxes. The state’s budget runs on a deficit, and we’re about to tack on a $327 million bill.

This has gotten Gov. Beshear’s attention. His tax reform commission has supposedly found changes in the tax code that will generate over $600 million annually, but those changes have yet to evolve into a legislative recommendation.

When that does materialize, any votes on tax increases during this short session will be subject to passage by a super-majority in both chambers.

That is a ‘yes’ vote by 60-percent of all members.

Currently Democrats hold a majority in the 100-member House, 55-44. While Republicans outnumber Democrats 23-14 in the Senate.

Tax reform is definitely an issue that lends itself to being addressed in a special session, where votes only require a simple-majority for passage. It’s asking a lot to expect a tax increase measure to pass the Senate with a super-majority, though where else Republicans expect to find this level of revenue is unclear.

Also likely to be addressed this session is another round of debate over expanded gambling at horse tracks, as this is the governor’s pet project. It still faces opposition in the Senate even with Sen. Thayer’s support. If it can pass both chambers a constitutional amendment would finally be put before the electorate on the 2014 ballot.

Other items likely to see action are:

Raising the dropout age to 18; resolving problems with Medicaid managed care; legalizing the growth of industrial hemp; and tweaking the pill-mill bill from last year.

The big question for the General Assembly is can they play nicely together in order to get something done.

The state is chronically underfunded, yet must allocate money to combat prescription pill and methamphetamine addiction; Medicaid and other government assistance programs are on the rise; and there is the looming state employee pension crisis.

These all need immediate attention, and political gridlock is something Kentucky can no longer afford.

The recent study from the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center showed that drug overdose deaths in Kentucky rose 282-percent between 2000 and 2010. Overdose-related inpatient hospitalization charges totaled $68.6 million, and emergency-room charges were another $9.6 million.

Prescription drug addiction is killing nearly 1,000 Kentuckians per year. That doesn’t begin to factor in the cost of the crime or its impact surrounding this issue. Include the ever-increasing presence of meth and heroine, and this makes for a serious drug problem that is monopolizing the time and budgets of law enforcement and the courts throughout the Commonwealth.

Some of these issues come down to quality of life in the Bluegrass.

Last year 635 lobbyists spent a record $8.8 million to push the legislative agenda. A sizeable portion of that lobbying money came from outside Kentucky, mainly from Washington, as big business spent lavishly to protect its interests in a small state.

That level of advocacy does nothing but keep legislators on edge, due to the incessant picking at them by special interest.

Decisions need to be made that are in the best interest of Kentuckians, not so wealthy corporations or K Street lobbyists can keep their profit margins high.

It’s time our public servants got some work done for the people who actually live here. And instead of running out of time to do this work and convening numerous special sessions that cost upwards of $60,000 per day – how about we try cutting down on the ridiculous stream of “special guests” and “special resolutions” that consume a sizable portion of each legislative day.

In the 2012 session, 420 symbolic or ceremonial resolutions were passed over 60 days. There’s a speech that goes with every one of those, and a staffer has to draft each, have it edited, printed, etc.

I understand y’all owe favors and hope to be re-elected, but we really need you to work hard these next couple years or the implications are dire.

Stop the hyper-partisan bickering and fix what ails Kentucky or go home and give someone else a try. Solutions are available, it just takes sacrifice and leadership.

Who knows, if the General Assembly can reform the tax code people might stop wondering why state government can’t get anything accomplished.

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