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State House not to meet again until Monday, Senate will reconvene Thursday

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT —The Kentucky House has called off meeting for the rest of this week and not reconvene until 4 p.m. Monday.

Meanwhile, the state Senate will meet at 2 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. Friday this week and be back at it next week.

If either chamber meets, that constitutes a legislative day. The House has 100 members and the Senate 38, with one vacancy.

So far, legislators have met 13 days this year. The 2015 General Assembly session is to run for 30 working days, with completion scheduled for March 24. The Kentucky Constitution requires 30-day sessions in odd-numbered years to run no longer than March 30.

Lawmakers have not actually met since last Friday. They were off Monday for Presidents’ Day and have been off Tuesday and Wednesday due to the inclement weather.

House Democratic leaders said in a release Wednesday that the combination of record cold temperatures and this week’s heavy snowfall is the reason for their decision for the chamber not to meet until Monday.

“Several members have expressed concern about leaving their families in these conditions, and major highways like I-65 have seen closures because of accidents,” House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said.

“Therefore, we think it is more prudent to be safe than sorry.”

Stumbo said it would be up to the individual committee chairmen to decide whether to meet prior to the legislative session on Monday, but “the other leaders and I do not recommend any meetings before we gavel in.”

He added that, at this time, they do not expect this decision to alter the session calendar. “We have more than enough time to complete the work before us,” he said.

Senate Republican leaders met Wednesday afternoon in Frankfort and decided to reconvene this week.

“The majority of our caucus members were here on Wednesday prepared to do the people’s work and the rest are on their way,” Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said in an email. “We understand the hardships associated with current weather conditions, but there are plenty of businesses staying open throughout the Commonwealth and the Senate feels inclined to stay open for business as well.”

By convening on Thursday the Senate will not lengthen the 2015 legislative session, but the House will have two less days to consider legislation, said the Senate GOP release.

House panel approves elections bills at Grimes’ urging

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — At the urging of Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a House committee unanimously approved legislation Tuesday to modernize voter registration.

House Bill 214, sponsored by Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville would allow voters to register online to vote and update their voter registration

“Electronic voter registration is more convenient and secure, saves our county clerks time and money, and results in more accurate voting records,” said Grimes, who noted that it already is in use for military personnel overseas.

She added that 20 other states already use electronic voter registration.

The House Committee on Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs also unanimously passed HB 212, legislation sponsored by Owens and proposed by Grimes to allow voters who are unable to go to the polls on Election Day due to age, disability or illness to vote in the county clerk’s office prior to the day of the election.

“Under current law, these voters may vote only by casting a mail-in absentee ballot,” said Grimes. “But many people cherish the experience of voting in person, and this bill would preserve that opportunity for them.”

The committee also approved two elections bills.

HB 150, sponsored by Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Owensboro, would make any candidate for county government who is defeated in a primary election ineligible to run as a write-in candidate for the same office in the general election.

HB 203, sponsored by Rep. Tanya Pullin, D-Greenup, raises the threshold for campaign finance reporting from $1,000 to $3,000.

All the bills now go to the House for its consideration.

State treasurer, lawmaker propose retirement savings plan for private employees

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT – State Treasurer Todd Hollenbach and state Rep. Martha Jane King, D-Lewisburg, unveiled legislation Tuesday designed to help Kentuckians who lack access to a retirement saving plan at their workplace.

The state official and lawmaker said at a Capitol news conference that 786,000 Kentucky workers could take advantage of the so-called Kentucky Retirement Account Program.

“KYRA will provide an opportunity for them to insure they have enough income to support themselves when they retire,” said Hollenbach.

Group seeks end of controversial campaign finance measure

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT –Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court shook up the world of campaign finance by ruling that corporations and unions may spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.

Since then, a very small part of the American public –0.01 percent — has donated 40 percent of all the contributions.

That needs to be stopped, said a small group in front of the Capitol Wednesday that offered the statistic to reporters.

They were in support for a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution to do away with the 2010 high court ruling called “Citizens United.”

A tiny portion of this country is funding elections and, in effect, controlling their outcome, said Richard Beliles, a Louisville attorney who is chair of Common Cause of Kentucky.

The group is part of the national Common Cause organization that advocates open, honest and accessible state and local government.

Common Cause held rallies across the country Tuesday similar to the one at the Kentucky Capitol and urged members of Congress to join the efforts in curbing campaign spending.

Joining Beliles in Frankfort were Louisville retired attorney George Schuhmann with Public Citizen, a non-profit, consumer rights advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.; Amy Waters of Louisville with 350.org, a global climate movement; and Jan Christensen of Louisville with 350.org and the environmental group, Sierra Club.

Alvarado is pursuing defamation lawsuit against Palmer in state Senate race

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT – Republican state Sen. Ralph Alvarado of Winchester is pursuing his defamation lawsuit against R.J. Palmer, the Democratic incumbent he ousted in last November’s election.

Alvarado’s attorney, Christopher Hunt, of Lexington, said Tuesday that even though Alvarado won the election, Alvarado wants to defend his reputation not only for himself and his family but to make sure others will not be discouraged from running for office who face similar tactics.

During the election campaign last October, Alvarado, a medical doctor, sued Palmer and Palmer’s campaign consultant, Dale Emmons, for defamation involving a campaign ad.

Alvardo also sought a restraining order to stop the television ad. However, a Scott circuit judge a few days before the election refused to grant the order.

Alvarado contends that the ad uses spliced courtroom footage to cast him as a drug dealer.

The ad implies that he unlawfully prescribed $3,000 worth of oxycodone to a criminal defendant, Alvarado said. Video from the court hearing is clear that the defendant had a valid prescription for OxyContin, Alvarado said.

Palmer, who had been the Senate minority leader, said Alvarado’s claims had no merit.

Baptist leader blasts Stumbo’s medical marijuana bill

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — The leader of the state’s largest religious organization voiced opposition Tuesday to a proposal in the state legislature that would make it legal for people to use marijuana in Kentucky for medical purposes.

“The very idea of thwarting the authority of the Food and Drug Administration and allowing Kentuckians to smoke marijuana under the guise that it is somehow medically beneficial is absurd,” said Paul Chitwood, executive director of the 750,000-member Kentucky Baptist Convention.

“Just because other states have taken this step doesn’t mean we should legalize another intoxicant, especially one that has been proven to be the first step toward abusing the hard drugs that are claiming so many lives through overdoes,” Chitwood said.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, filed a bill in this year’s legislative session that would allow trained doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients for 21 “debilitating medical conditions,” ranging from “severe” nausea to post traumatic stress disorder. The state would have a strict oversight system in place to make sure prescriptions were not abused, Stumbo said.

“I understand this is a learning process, but I hope people will listen to the debate before making up their minds,” Stumbo said Tuesday in an email. “This is not recreational marijuana; it is medical marijuana, and they should hear the stories from people who say it has benefitted them and their families. My bill is one of the strictest among the states, too; it does not allow smoking, nor does it let individuals grow their own.”

Senate panel approves bill to curb governor’s use of administrative regulations

FRANKFORT – State legislators would have more authority over the governor’s administrative regulations under a bill a Senate panel approved Thursday on a partisan vote.

Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, is the same as a measure that the Senate approved last year but the House let die.

It would amend the state Constitution to specify that an administrative regulation disapproved by lawmakers would be void and unenforceable and could not be reissued in the same or similar language for at least a year.

Some legislators complain that they have no power over administrative regulations when the General Assembly is not in session. They can only address them now when in session.

Such regulations allow the executive branch to deal with emergencies and to implement policies when the legislature is not in session.

The bill would allow the General Assembly to set up a review panel to rule on administrative regulations between sessions of the legislature.

Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, told the committee the bill was not needed and that it would delegate power to a special agency created by the legislature.

Sen. Dorsey Ridley, D-Henderson, said the bill would lead to year-round legislative action.

The panel’s vote was 8-3, with Republicans in the majority. The legislation now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

Constitutional amendments require approval by the House and the Senate and by voters in statewide polls.

–Jack Brammer

KY Senate Dems pick new leadership team

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT – Kentucky Senate Democrats are going with an entire new leadership team for the next two years.

Members of the minority party in the Senate selected in a unanimous vote Monday Ray Jones of Pikeville to be the Democratic floor leader.

Also named to the leadership team were Gerald Neal of Louisville as caucus chair and former Gov. and now state Sen. Julian Carroll of Frankfort as caucus whip.

Jones, who has been in the Senate since 2001, replaces R.J. Palmer of Winchester, who lost a re-election bid last month to Republican Ralph Alvarado of Winchester.

Neal, a senator since 1989, replaces Johnny Ray Turner of Prestonsburg, and Carroll, a senator since 2005, replaces Jerry Rhoads of Madisonville, who did not seek re-election.

Republicans have controlled the Senate since 2000. They now outnumber Democrats in the Senate, 26-12.

That may change after a special election will be held to replace Sen. Walter Blevins, D-Morehead, who won an election last month for Rowan county judge-executive.

Senate Republicans chose their leaders last week. House and Senate Democrats will pick their leaders when the 2015 General Assembly begins Jan. 6.

An organizational session will run through Jan. 9.

Legislators then will return to Frankfort Feb. 3 to continue the 30-day, 2015 law-making session.

Big dip in KY’s gasoline tax means less money for road projects

Transportation Secretary Mike HancockBy Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Kentucky motorists will pay less taxes for gas starting New Year’s Day, but the change will mean fewer road improvements, state officials warned Wednesday.

Kentucky’s tax on sales of gasoline, diesel and ethanol motor fuels will drop by 4.3 cents per gallon on Jan. 1, resulting in a loss to the Kentucky Road Fund of about $129 million on an annualized basis, according to the state Transportation Cabinet.

Kentucky’s gas tax fluctuates with the average wholesale price of gas, which has dropped in recent months.

“The gas tax accounts for more than half of the revenue in the Kentucky Road Fund,” state Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock said in a news release. “A loss of revenue is always concerning, but a revenue impact of this magnitude is crippling. It means less money for building, improving, maintaining and repairing our roads, streets and bridges.”

A loss of $129 million would amount to about 6 percent of Kentucky’s highway funding, which was forecast to collect $2.25 billion in the current fiscal year from all revenue sources, including state and federal motor-fuels taxes and a state usage tax on motor vehicles.

Luallen pledges to support Beshear as KY’s new lieutenant governor

By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Crit Luallen, in her first public speech as Kentucky’s 56th lieutenant governor, told several hundred people in the Capitol Rotunda Friday that she is ready to help Gov. Steve Beshear with his “continuing efforts to build a Kentucky poised for a prosperous future.”

Luallen, who has served with six other Kentucky governors in high positions and was elected twice as state auditor, said the day was not one for laying out a new agenda but “to celebrate all that is right and good about our state’s past and its hope for the future.”

Luallen particiapted in a publc-swearing in ceremony that attracted various state officials like Attorney General Jack Conway, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Senate President Robert Stivers and other well-wishers.

Beshear named Luallen to be the state’s No. 2 public official to replace Jerry Abramson, who departed to take a job with the White House to help local officials throughout the country.

In his remarks at Friday’s public ceremony, Beshear said Luallen will help his administration in improving access to health care and creating jobs.

Luallen called on several family members and friends to participate in the ceremony.

Tourism Secretary Bob Stewart, who went to school with Luallen, served as moderator.

Catarine Hancock, Luallen’s great niece and a sophomore at Lexington’s Lafayette High School, sang the National Anthem.

The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, pastor of New Union Christian Church in Woodford County, gave the invocation and Eleanor Jordan, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Women, introduced Luallen.

Franklin Circuit Court Judger Philip Shepherd, administered the public oath of office as Luallen’s husband, Lynn Luallen, held the Bible upon which she put her hand. A private swearing-in ceremony was held Thursday at the home of former Chief Justice John Palmore and Carol Palmore.

Centre College President John Roush provided the closing remarks and Colmon Elridge, executive assistant in the governor’s office, sang “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The Governor’s School for the Arts Alumni offered the musical prelude for the ceremony that lasted about an hour.

A public reception was held in the Governor’s Mansion after the ceremony. Music there was provided by the Centre College Kentucky Ensemble.