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Beshear signs bill authorizing state bonds for UK medical research center

photo (39)By Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law Monday a bill that will provide the University of Kentucky with $132.5 million in state bonds for a six-story medical research center.

“This projects represents the potential to improve the lives of so many, both within Kentucky where our health outcomes are so poor, and beyond,” Beshear said at a Capitol news conference with several legislators and Lisa Cassis, UK’s vice president of research.

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto was not able to attend because of a stomach virus.

House Bill 298, sponsored by Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, and House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, authorizes spending $5.6 million on debt payments for the bonds this year and $11 million in subsequent years.

UK will provide another $132.5 million for the project through research contracts and private donations.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said the project is personal to him since he has had many relatives and friends treated at UK for cancer.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the ramifications of the center are “wide-ranging.”

Stumbo also apologized to Capilouto, saying he initially thought Capilouto was “not up for the job” to be UK president but that Capilouto has proved him wrong.

The center, which would house researchers from several disciplines, is to be built on UK’s campus near South Limestone and Virginia Avenue.

UK plans to begin construction by the end of the year.

The health challenges those researchers will address include cancer, heart and pulmonary disease, stroke and other preventable illnesses.

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.

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.”

Lawmaker takes issue with Stumbo’s comments on Ark park

State Rep. Brian LinderBy Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — State Rep. Brian Linder, R-Dry Ridge, expressed disappointment Thursday over House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s comments this week that the state should not provide tax incentives for a Noah’s Ark theme park in Grant County.

Linder, who represents Grant, Gallatin and Owen counties in the House’s 61st District, said in a news release that Stumbo’s comments “appear to tell those who want to bring economic opportunity to the commonwealth that Kentucky is closed for business, which only serves to further drive other businesses out of our state.”

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said earlier this week that Grant County needs more economic development but that the use of tax incentives for the park is unconstitutional because it violates the U.S. Constitution’s mandate for separation of church and state.

He predicted that the incentives will be challenged in court and the state would lose.

The Kentucky Tourism Development Authority has given its preliminary approval for as much as $18.25 million in tax incentives for the $73 million first phase of the biblical theme park. It is to consider final approval after a feasibility study is conducted.

The park is to open in two years and will feature a wooden ark 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 55 feet high. It is affiliated with Answers in Genesis, which runs the Creation Museum in Boone County. The museum follows a literal interpretation of the Bible and the belief, contrary to science, that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

Linder said the proposed Ark Encounter theme park is a tourism-based economic development project that qualifies to receive tax incentives from the state. He said millions of dollars have already been allotted for highway improvements in the area of the proposed theme park’s location

“While Kentucky continues to lose jobs to places like Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, and Texas, Speaker Stumbo chooses to attack an economic development project in my community by encouraging lawsuits on tax incentives,” Linder said.

Linder said Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and others are supporting the project “because they understand the huge economic benefits it can bring to the Commonwealth, yet Speaker Stumbo would rather stir up issues instead of considering the opportunities this project will provide to Kentucky families.”

Linder called Stumbo’s comments about the park and religion disingenuous.

“While the Speaker has an issue with a religious theme park receiving tax incentives to provide jobs, he apparently has no problem occupying a chair in the House chambers that has, in large letters, the motto ‘In God We Trust’ behind it,” he said.

Legislative leaders make joint appointment to ethics panel after two-year wait

By Jack Brammer

jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT – House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President Robert Stivers filled a position Monday on the Legislative Ethics Commission that has been vacant for two years.

The two legislative leaders jointly appointed Henry Stephens, a professor at Northern Kentucky University’s Salmon P. Chase College of Law, to fill out the nine-member commission that came under fire recently for not having a majority of members present to hear sexual harassment complaints against a former legislator.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Monday that the apppointment took such a long time because it was “an ongoing process, but we are pleased to have found such a well qualified person to serve.”

Stivers’ spokeswoman Jodi Whitaker said he has “been vetting a number of individuals” who would be acceptable to both Stumbo and him.

The other commission appointments are split evenly between them.

Stumbo, whose Twitter account jabbed at McConnell, says he was hacked

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg
By Jack Brammer

jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT – House Speaker Greg Stumbo says his Twitter account, which featured some disparaging comments Thursday night about U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, was hacked.

Stumbo tweeted Thursday night after the political tweets appeared on @SpeakerStumbo that the controversial tweets were not his.

“Someone just called me about all the tweets – I’ve been hacked,” he wrote. “I’ll have to change my password. Goodnight, everyone.”

Stumbo spokesman, Brian Wilkerson, said Friday that the office would have no comment on the Speaker’s private account.

Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, and McConnell, a Republican who is seeking re-election this year, are longtime political adversaries.

From 8:31 p.m. to 8:46 p.m. Thursday, these political tweets appeared on Stumbo’s account:

*To Rich Mitch you sent our young men to war which was useless how about making your military file public? The dead deserve it.

*Check Mitches net worth over these years and @compare it to the average Kentuckian he gained you lost and this why he wants to be reelected?

*Mitch McConnell went to Congress with an average net worth CHECK IT OUT NOW he made millions you went broke

*My God the Republicans who causes the Hoover and Bush/McConnell recessions think people believe them HELLO

Grimes ‘disappointed’ by ethics panel’s decision to forgo punishment of former lawmaker

McConnellGrimesBy Sam Youngman
syoungman@herald-leader.com

Likely Democratic Senate nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes said Wednesday she was disappointed that former state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, won’t be punished by a state ethics panel for his alleged sexual harassment of three legislative aides.

After refusing Tuesday night to take questions about Arnold from reporters for the Herald-Leader and cn|2 Pure Politics, Grimes released a statement Wednesday that said she is glad Arnold resigned last September.

The Legislative Ethics Commission fell one vote short of punishing Arnold Tuesday. The deciding vote was cast by Elmer George, who has contributed $5,200 to Grimes’ campaign and was appointed to the commission in January by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who has played a major role at several campaign events for Grimes.

“As I have always said, I will never tolerate discrimination or workplace harassment,” Grimes said in her statement. “Though I am disappointed in yesterday’s decision, I am glad that the representative resigned. Protecting women from violence and harassment is personal to me. As secretary of state, I led the effort to shield domestic-violence victims, and my support for Kentucky women is unmatched in this race. I am the only candidate for U.S. Senate who supports the Violence Against Women Act, equal pay for equal work, and raising the minimum wage.”

When the Arnold scandal erupted last summer, the only statewide elected Democrat to call for his resignation was state Auditor Adam Edelen.

Lawmakers strike deal on state budget, but Rupp Arena out of luck

State Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester

By John Cheves
Jcheves@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Top Kentucky lawmakers emerged from a closed room about 5:30 a.m. Sunday to announce they had reached a deal on a $20.3 billion, two-year state budget that does not provide major money for a proposed renovation of Rupp Arena.

“I think it’s responsible. It makes a pretty significant and strong statement toward education,” Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, told reporters after the conclusion of an 18-hour negotiating session between House and Senate leaders.

One high-profile casualty was the $65 million in bonds Gov. Steve Beshear proposed in January for the renovation of Rupp Arena and the attached convention center in Lexington. Instead, the state budget will include “a small sum,” to be matched with local funds, so Lexington can move ahead with more planning, engineering and programming on the project, Stivers said.

If Lexington publicly produces a formal financing plan for the Rupp Arena renovation and a signed lease agreement with the University of Kentucky, which uses the venue for its men’s basketball games, then it can return for more money in the 2015 legislative session, Stivers said.

“There are mechanisms in place for it to go forward,” Stivers said.

greg-stumbo-3Some lawmakers on the budget conference committee said they were unimpressed by a personal appeal Lexington Mayor Jim Gray made for Rupp Arena funding on Saturday. Gray said UK has not yet signed a future lease deal for the arena, and he said he could not publicly disclose the proposed terms of UK’s next lease or his own plan to pay for the renovation project.

State Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, said she believes Gray did the best he could Saturday fielding queries from lawmakers.

“There are some very good questions about the plan that right now the mayor simply cannot answer,” Flood said Sunday afternoon. “I sense right now that the Senate really does want to keep the project moving forward, but they want more assurances about how the financing would work. If he (Gray) can come back, even in our next session (in 2015), having rolled out a formal financial plan, there could be some more help then. I don’t think it would have to wait until our next budget in 2016.”

Gray had not seen details of the budget agreement as of early Sunday afternoon, said spokeswoman Susan Straub.

“We need to see it and make sure we understand it before we comment on it,” Straub said.

Gray also has asked lawmakers to let Lexington raise its hotel and motel tax from 6 percent to 8.5 percent, which would yield about $3.5 million a year for the $328 million reinvention of Rupp. That proposal, which is not part of the state budget, appears to face an uphill battle in the Senate during the final days of this year’s legislative session.

House and Senate leaders, who spent the night cloistered in a committee room of the Capitol Annex, reached a consenusus on hundreds of differences in their proposed budgets. Most were relatively minor, but some involved huge sums of money or made significant changes to state policy, including:

House adds nursing home for felons to Kentucky budget; likely location is in Stumbo’s district

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-PrestonsburgBy John Cheves
jcheves@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Kentucky might soon open a nursing home for elderly felons in House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s Eastern Kentucky district, even though the state Department of Corrections hasn’t requested such a facility.

Tucked into the House version of the proposed state budget is language instructing the Corrections Department to transfer at least 100 inmates age 65 and older into a former prison that will be converted into “an assisted living and/or nursing facility.” The department would report to lawmakers on the home’s operations in January 2016.

The only available former prison appears to be the vacant 656-bed Otter Creek Correctional Center in Floyd County, which Stumbo represents. It’s owned by Corrections Corporation of America, based in Nashville.

The state of Hawaii pulled 168 female inmates from Otter Creek in 2009 after alleged sexual abuse by guards. Kentucky withdrew its inmates from the prison after a penal reform law in 2011 reduced demand for bed space. Kentucky also has ended its contracts with two other CCA prisons in Lee and Marion counties. Overall, the state was paying CCA more than $20 million a year to house its inmates.

In a prepared statement Wednesday, Stumbo confirmed that CCA’s Otter Creek prison, near the Wheelwright community, is what he has in mind for the nursing home.

Senate panel unanimously approves measure to cut number of legislative days

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-ManchesterBy Jack Brammer
jbrammer@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Senate President Robert Stivers won unanimous support Wednesday from a Senate committee for his constitutional amendment to cut the number of days state lawmakers meet each year.

Stivers said the proposal would cut the number of days lawmakers meet in session from 90 days every two years to 60 days, saving the state up to $7 million a year.

Though some Democrats on the Senate State and Local Government Committee expressed concerns with the proposal, all 11 members voted for Senate Bill 195 and sent it to the full Senate for its consideration later this week or early next week.

“This is an attempt to return to what I think the framers of our constitution thought our role should be — one of a citizen legislature,” said Stivers.

He predicted that having fewer legislative days each year would attract more candidates to run for the House and Senate.