A $1.5 billion deficit in the next two-year state budget tops the 2010 Kentucky General Assembly’s agenda, but dozens of other proposals, dealing with everything from child pornography to industrialized hemp, will compete for lawmakers’ attention. The legislative session begins Tuesday.
Here are some of the top issues lawmakers will consider.
Budget and taxes
Topic: State budget
Details: The Kentucky Constitution mandates that lawmakers approve a two-year budget no later than April 15. To continue spending $9.1 billion a year from the General Fund, legislators will have to find an extra $890 million in revenue over the next two fiscal years. In addition, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear says the state has at least $600 million more in new expenses that must be paid for in the next budget.
Hurdles: Ultimately, a small group of leading lawmakers from both chambers will negotiate details of the budget during closed-door sessions in early April. Until then, no potential spending cut or tax increase can be ruled out.
Topic: Tax overhaul
Details: A variety of proposals to overhaul the state’s tax system are percolating as potential solutions to the $1.5 billion deficit that lawmakers face in the two-year budget. Senate President David Williams, a Republican, has signaled a willingness to consider the idea of abolishing the state income tax and replacing it with higher consumption taxes, such as the sales tax. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat, has said he’d rather overhaul the tax structure than make deep cuts to education. Some lawmakers have proposed taxing more services — including attorney fees and auto repairs — and raising taxes on the rich.
Hurdles: Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who already has declared his intention to run for re-election in 2011, says that now is not the time to raise taxes on families and businesses struggling with a recession. Also, half of the members of the state Senate and all of the House members face re-election in 2010. They’ll be reluctant to vote for any bill that raises taxes.
Topic: Expanded gambling
Details: A proposal by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, would allow voters to change the Kentucky Constitution to permit electronic slot machines in counties with horse racetracks.
Hurdles: The horse industry has rejected Thayer’s proposal as “too little too late.” It prefers a bill that would allow slots at racetracks without a change to the Constitution, but that proposal has previously died in the Republican-led Senate. Compromise seems unlikely.
Topic: Oath of office
Details: A measure backed by Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, would ask voters to delete language regarding duels from the oath of office that the Constitution requires many elected officials to take before they enter office.
Hurdles: The measure is likely to get a hearing in the House Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, which Owens chairs. But one committee member, Democratic Rep. Mike Cherry of Princeton, has said that many lawmakers don’t support deleting the ban on dueling.
Topic: Felon voting rights
Details: Proposals by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, and Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, would allow voters to change the constitution to permit automatic restoration of voting rights to non-violent felons who have served their time.
Hurdles: Similar measures have cleared the Democratic-led House in recent years but died without a vote in the Republican-led Senate. History is likely to repeat itself.
Crime and Punishment
Topic: Criminal law overhaul
Details: A subcommittee of lawmakers has been studying ways to reduce prison costs by modifying Kentucky’s penal code. Possible changes include reduced sentences for repeat non-violent offenders and drug offenders.
Hurdles: Key lawmakers from both parties who are eager to avoid deep cuts to other government services have embraced the idea of penal code reform. However, many lawmakers might be reluctant to vote during an election year for any bill that opens them to accusations of being soft on crime.
Topic: Domestic violence
Details: House Speaker Greg Stumbo is pushing a measure to allow electronic monitoring of those accused of domestic violence. Meanwhile, Democratic Reps. Joni Jenkins of Shively and Jody Richards of Bowling Green have proposed bills that would allow someone to seek a domestic violence order against their dating partner.
Hurdles: The proposals have gained momentum in the wake of the slaying of Amanda Ross, allegedly by Steve Nunn, a former state lawmaker and son of the late Gov. Louie B. Nunn.
Topic: Endangering children
Details: A woman could be charged with substance endangerment of a child — a felony — if her child is born with alcohol or an unprescribed controlled substance in his or her system under a bill proposed by Rep. Richard Henderson, D-Jeffersonville. The mother also could be charged if the child has a health problem caused by the mother’s ingestion of drugs or alcohol.
Hurdles: Although many prosecutors have asked for a substance-endangerment statute, most medical groups and advocates for women and children oppose the move. Health officials say the threat of incarceration could lead mothers to avoid prenatal care and hospitalized births, or push them toward abortion.
Topic: Prison food
Details: A proposal to cancel Aramark Correctional Services’ $12 million annual contract to provide food at state prisons has been filed by Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville. Northpoint Training Center, where there was a riot last year, is one of several state prisons where inmates and corrections officers have complained about the quality and quantity of food. However, a state investigation found that poor food service was not the primary cause of the riot.
Hurdles: State corrections officials say the contract saves the state $5 million a year.
Topic: Child pornography
Details: Proposals by Democratic Reps. Jody Richards of Bowling Green and Martha Jane King of Lewisburg would ban those younger than 18 from sending nude pictures of themselves to others younger than 18, or receiving them from other minors. Both offenses would be a Class B misdemeanor that does not require registration as a sex offender.
Hurdles: There is no known opposition to the proposals.
Topic: Dropout age
Details: The dropout age for schoolchildren would be raised from 16 to 18 under proposals by Democratic Reps. Reginald Meeks of Louisville and Brent Yonts of Greenville.
Hurdles: Financial concerns have stalled the proposal in previous lawmaking sessions. Legislative economists said in 2009 that they couldn’t determine how much the proposal would cost the state, but they suggested that it would require at least $15 million a year to educate those who otherwise would have dropped out.
Topic: Community college transfers
Details: A proposal by House Education Committee Chairman Carl Rollins, D-Versailles, would guarantee that students who pick a major soon after starting community college can finish an associate’s degree that fulfills the required general-education classes of Kentucky’s eight public universities. It also would give the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education more power to coordinate issues involving transfer students.
Hurdles: There is no known opposition to the measure.
Topic: Charter schools
Details: Bills proposed by Republican Reps. Stan Lee of Lexington and Brad Montell of Shelbyville would allow charter schools in Kentucky. Charter schools are institutions granted special permission, or “charters,” from local school districts or state education departments to operate independently of traditional education regulations.
Hurdles: State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday and leading Democratic lawmakers say the idea has no widespread support among lawmakers.
Topic: Road funding plan
Details: Lawmakers must hash out a new two-year funding plan for road construction.
Hurdles: Road projects already on the books far surpass the available funds to build them, and it seems unlikely that the General Assembly can issue much new debt to pay for road construction. The state already is spending 6.43 percent of its revenue to pay down existing debt. Raising that percentage risks a costly downgrade from bond-rating agencies on Wall Street.
Topic: Texting ban
Details: Several bills have been pre-filed to prohibit text messaging while driving. A proposal by Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, calls for fines starting at $100 and rising to $300 for subsequent offenses. Fines of as much as $600 would be levied if texting caused a crash. In the House, Democratic Reps. Jody Richards of Bowling Green and Rick Nelson of Middlesboro have made similar proposals but with smaller fines. Nelson’s bill also would ban any kind of cell phone use for drivers younger than 18.
Hurdles: For years, the General Assembly has brushed aside attempts to ban talking on cell phones while driving, but there seems to be widespread consensus that anyone reading or writing clearly has stopped looking at the road.
Topic: “In God We Trust” license plates
Details: State Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, will again push for a regular state-issued “In God We Trust” license plate. Meanwhile, a Kentucky anti-pornography group sued the state Transportation Cabinet and two legislators in 2009 for turning down its application to sponsor a specialty license plate with the motto “In God We Trust.”
Hurdles: Gooch’s proposal stalled in the full House last year.
Topic: Teacher pensions
Details: The Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System is helping to draft legislation that would halt borrowing from the system’s pension fund to pay for health insurance for retired teachers. Lawmakers have borrowed more than $562 million from the fund in recent years. The system would become insolvent by 2029 if the borrowing continues at its current pace.
Hurdles: Benefit cutbacks are a likely consequence of stopping the borrowing. Getting the Kentucky Education Association and Republican leaders in the Senate to agree on what those cutbacks should include will probably be difficult.
Topic: Legislative pensions
Details: Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, will push a proposal to cancel a 2005 provision that allows annual retirement benefits to increase dramatically for former lawmakers who switch to a judicial-branch or executive-branch job.
Hurdles: The two legislative committee chairmen who oversee state government issues have said they support altering the controversial benefit, which Gov. Steve Beshear has used in recent months to lure two Republican senators into other state jobs. However, it’s not clear whether legislative leaders will support repealing the benefit.
Topic: Legislative employment
Details: Former lawmakers could not accept any position within the executive branch, except elective office, for two years after leaving the legislature under a proposal by Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington. Her measure also would not allow a legislator to become a lobbyist for an executive-branch agency for two years after leaving office.
Hurdles: House Speaker Greg Stumbo has said he does not think there would be much sentiment in the Democratic-controlled chamber for Kerr’s bill. He wondered aloud why Republican lawmakers didn’t file such measures when Republican Ernie Fletcher was governor from 2003 to 2007.
Topic: Government spending
Details: Two Republican lawmakers — Rep. Jim DeCesare of Rockfield and Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown — are backing a proposal to require each branch of government to divulge its expenses on a Web site. The sites would have to provide, by Jan. 1, 2011, information not considered confidential by state or federal law for each expenditure in their branch of government.
Hurdles: It’s not clear how much money and manpower it would take to set up and maintain the Web sites.
Topic: Child abuse records and juvenile court
Details: Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee, has pledged to sponsor legislation that would require state officials to make public their investigative records relating to children who have been killed or severely injured by an abuser. He also is considering a proposal to create a pilot program that would open some of Kentucky’s closed-door family courts. Most other states open child-protection courts to some degree.
Hurdles: Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration has not embraced either proposal, saying any move to open child abuse records or juvenile courts requires careful study. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services already has the option of publicly releasing such records but has kept them secret, citing privacy concerns.
Topic: 911 calls
Details: It would be illegal to broadcast 911 emergency tapes under a proposal by Sen. John Schickel, R-Union. He said the media’s use of such tapes violates the privacy rights of 911 callers.
Hurdles: An identical proposal cleared the Senate in 2009 but died in the House Judiciary Committee, where the Kentucky Press Association lobbied against the bill. The same thing will probably happen this year.
Health and welfare
Topic: Smoking cessation
Details: Proposals by Senators Denise Harper Angel and Perry Clark, both Democrats from Louisville, would allocate about $1.5 million a year to fund a 2007 law that allows the state’s Medicaid program to pay for smoking-cessation aides, such as nicotine patches.
Hurdles: Health advocates are pushing for the additional funding, but any new expenditures seem doubtful to win legislative approval given the state’s money woes.
Details: Lawmakers will again consider a measure proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Tori, R-Radcliff, that would require a woman to be presented with an ultrasound and have a face-to-face consultation with a physician before having an abortion.
Hurdles: The measure has cleared the Republican-led Senate in years past, only to die in the House Health and Welfare Committee. That is likely to be repeated.
Topic: Recreational trails
Details: A proposal by Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, would elevate the Kentucky Recreational Trails Authority to a separate state agency and empower it to develop a statewide recreational trail plan.
Hurdles: Environmental activists oppose the measure, saying a board with private-sector interests shouldn’t be allowed to determine which public lands, some of which are ecologically sensitive, can be opened to trails for ATVs, horses and bicycles.
Topic: Nuclear power
Details: A 1984 moratorium on the building of nuclear power plants until the federal government determines how to safely dispose of nuclear waste would be overturned under a measure backed by Sen. Bob Leeper, an independent from Paducah.
Hurdles: An identical measure cleared the Senate and a House committee in 2009 but died in the final hours of the legislative session. Environmentalists oppose the measure, noting that there are no permanent storage or disposal facilities in the country for nuclear waste. Nuclear plants currently store waste on site.
Topic: Unemployment insurance
Details: A task force has delivered recommendations to Gov. Steve Beshear that calls for raising unemployment insurance taxes on businesses while reducing benefits for the unemployed. Since 2002, Kentucky has paid out more in unemployment benefits than it has taken in through employer contributions, according to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Kentucky borrowed about $600 million from the federal government in 2009 to pay unemployment benefits.
Hurdles: Given the borrowing, it seems likely that lawmakers will reach some sort of compromise to stabilize the unemployment insurance system.
Topic: Payday lending
Details: Gov. Steve Beshear wants lawmakers to cap interest rates for short-term lending at 36 percent.
Hurdles: The proposal, which no lawmaker has yet sponsored, faces an uphill battle in the legislature, where lobbyists for the payday-lending industry have significant sway.
Topic: Wine sales in groceries
Details: A coalition of grocery stores is again pushing lawmakers to allow supermarkets to sell wine in wet and “moist” counties. Now, grocery stores can get a license to sell wine and liquor only if they provide a separate entrance to that part of the store, where minors are not allowed to work.
Hurdles: Despite a media campaign to foment public support, the measure has gained little traction with lawmakers since 2007.
To find out which lawmakers represent you, go to http://lrc.ky.gov/Legislators.htm. To leave a message for a specific legislator, call 1-800-372-7181. You can e-mail lawmakers by filling out a form at http://www.lrc.ky.gov/Mailform/mailform.htm. Lawmakers ask that you include your name, home address, and e-mail address in your message. If you are requesting information, please include a voice phone number and a postal mailing address.
Jan. 5: Session convenes
Jan 6: Governor delivers State of the Commonwealth address
Jan. 19: Governor delivers budget address
Feb. 22: Last day for new bill requests
March 1: Last day for new House bills to be filed
March 3: Last day for new Senate bills to be filed
March 29: Last day before a 10-day veto recess
April 13: Final scheduled day of the legislative session, although it can be pushed back to April 15.
Text by John Stamper; Illustrations by Chris Ware