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House panel approves local-option sales tax, but vote in House is uncertain

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-PrestonsburgBy Jack Brammer

FRANKFORT — A proposal to give cities and counties the option of asking voters to support a sales tax increase for local projects cleared a state House panel Tuesday, but it’s future in the full House looks doubtful.

Minutes after the House Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs approved House Bill 399 on a 6-3 vote, House Speaker Greg Stumbo called it “bad policy” and said he did not know if the House will vote on it.

The five House Democratic leaders, which control the flow of bills to the full House, are divided on the issue.

Stumbo, of Prestonsburg, and House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark of Louisville expressed concern that the bill would limit the state’s ability to increase the sales tax statewide at some point in the future.

But House Majority Whip Tommy Thompson of Owensboro and House Majority Caucus Chair Sannie Overly of Paris favor the bill, which is backed by Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.

Negotiations on hemp bill continue; Comer optimistic about compromise

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer

By Jack Brammer

FRANKFORT — State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer expressed optimism Thursday that state lawmakers next week will approve a bill to regulate hemp farming in the state.

Comer said he was open to compromise with lawmakers on the bill but stressed that he could not support any change to it that would delay getting permits from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to grow the crop. For example, he said a bill that merely study’s hemp farming would not fly.

Comer’s comments came after a meeting of the Industrial Hemp Commission. Most of the meeting focused on the status of Senate Bill 50.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, has cleared the Senate and a House committee. It is intended to allow Kentucky to quickly license hemp growers if the federal government lifts a ban on the plant, a botanical sibling of marijuana.

House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, proposed an amendment last week to the bill but Comer said it was an effort to kill the bill, especially its provision to allow five years of hemp growing demonstration projects by licensed growers.

Rocky Adkins unveils 11th-hour amendment to hemp bill

State Rep. Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook

By Linda B. Blackford

A proposal to regulate hemp farming in Kentucky that appeared dead received an 11th hour reprieve from House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins late Tuesday night.

Adkins announced just before 10 p.m. that he was filing an amendment to Senate Bill 50 that would tie potential hemp production to more research and current tax incentives for energy production. He said work on the bill would continue over the next 10 days, and then be considered by both chambers on March 25 or March 26.

The original version of SB 50 would set up a licensing framework for Kentucky farmers to grow hemp if federal restrictions are lifted. The bill, pushed by Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, won Senate approval last month but stalled in the House. It had broad bipartisan support but was opposed by several law enforcement agencies.

Adkins said he met with Comer and many other advocates and opponents of the bill and “tried to really craft a path forward that hopefully will … put a policy in place that really gets bang for the buck.”

But Comer’s chief of staff, Holly Harris VonLuehrte, said the commissioner was “blindsided” by Adkins’ announcement. Comer did meet with Adkins on Friday but she said there was no specific discussion of an amendment to the bill.

Democratic leader’s role in hiring of Kentucky prison worker raises questions

By John Cheves

A hearing officer has recommended overturning the hiring of a state merit worker at Little Sandy Correctional Complex after House Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins endorsed the son of a local politician over the applicant deemed best qualified.

In late 2010, Adkins wrote the Corrections Department on his legislative letterhead and called Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson to recommened Charles Pennington for a $40,709-a-year operations manager job at the prison in Elliott County. Pennington’s father is the county’s former Democratic judge-executive and sheriff.

Pennington later testified that he sought the assistance of Adkins, who lives in nearby Sandy Hook.

The job was awarded in December 2010 to Hershel Adkins (no direct relation to the lawmaker) following several rounds of interviews and background evaluations by two panels of officials at the prison, including the warden. Pennington was among the losing applicants. But in January 2011, Thompson overturned that decision from Frankfort and gave the job to Pennington.

By law, politics cannot play a role in deciding who gets state merit jobs. Hershel Adkins filed an appeal with the Kentucky Personnel Board, which held an evidentiary hearing six months ago.

Money for roads in Williams’ district pales in comparison to House leaders

By John Cheves

Gov. Steve Beshear blamed Senate President David Williams’ “greed” last week after Williams added tens of millions of dollars in spending for his district to the state’s two-year road plan. Meanwhile, Williams criticized Beshear for not signing the plan into law hours after legislative leaders hammered out a compromise version and delivered it to the governor.

A week after the regular legislative session ended in failure because of this impasse, the facts don’t entirely support either man.

Though Williams, R-Burkesville, did try to fatten short-term road spending in his district, which includes six rural counties along the Tennessee state line, what he awarded himself pales in comparison to the asphalt anticipated by House Democratic leaders, who get first crack at the governor’s road plan and share the governor’s party affiliation.

From 2012 through 2014, the road plan the legislature approved last Thursday would have spent $115 million in Williams’ district, or $1,017 per person. Floyd County, home of House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, would get $95 million, or $2,411 per person. Elliott County, home of House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, would get $41 million, or $5,259 per person.

Lawmakers wrangle over debt in state budget

By Jack Brammer

FRANKFORT – Senate President David Williams and House Democratic leaders wrangled over how much debt there should be in the state budget Wednesday in a third day of negotiations over the two-year, $19 billion spending plan.

Leading lawmakers are trying to produce a budget by 3 a.m. Thursday, which would allow the chambers to vote Friday on a budget bill. If they don’t meet that deadline, lawmakers still could rearrange the legislative calendar so that Saturday or Monday becomes the 59th day of the 60-workday legislative session. Wednesday was the 57th day of the session, which must end by April 15.

Lawmakers hope to preserve the final day of the session to override any vetoes Gov. Steve Beshear might issue during a 10-day window in early April.

In little more than an hour of negotiations Wednesday morning, lawmakers argued over whether to include in the budget a $100 million bond for school construction and a $20 million bond for high-tech economic development construction projects.

Lawmakers unveil emergency legislation to help tornado victims

By Jack Brammer

FRANKFORT — A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is backing emergency legislation to help Kentucky’s tornado victims.

The proposal would provide tax relief to owners of buildings damaged in the March 2 tornadoes and assist schools and staff suffering with potential loss of funds due to absences caused by the disaster.

Flanked by 11 other lawmakers on Tuesday, state Rep. John Will Stacy, D-West Liberty, said building owners in all 21 Kentucky counties that were declared disaster areas by President Barack Obama could recover the state’s 6 percent sales tax paid on building materials used to repair or replace any structure damaged in the disaster.

The buildings must be repaired or rebuilt in the county in which they were damaged, said Stacy, whose hometown was decimated by a killer tornado.

Stumbo seeks spending records for Morehead State officials

By Linda B. Blackford

The sponsor of a bill to make the University of Pikeville a public school has requested spending records for the president and Board of Regents of Morehead State University, which is vigorously opposing the measure.

A Feb. 15 request under the Open Records Act from House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, asks for all records from the past five years showing expenses incurred by Morehead President Wayne Andrews, his staff and all 11 regents.

The request asks for expenses related to travel, vacations, conventions, recreation, motor vehicles, country clubs or other memberships and any other items of value.

In addition, the request asks for documents related to the “improvement of the educational opportunities” in the 12-county region of southeastern Kentucky that UPike would serve instead of Morehead.

Neither Stumbo nor Andrews was immediately available for comment.

House leader Adkins seeks to make state schools greener

By Jack Brammer

FRANKFORT – House Majority Leader Leader Rocky Adkins touted Rosa Parks Elementary School in Lexington Thursday in promoting his legislation to make schools more energy efficient.

At a Capitol news conference, Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, unveiled his “Kentucky Green Schools Initiative” that would allow schools to tap into a $50 million bond pool previously authorized to apply for loans for energy conservation measures such as new insulation and weather stripping.

A Kentucky Green Schools Authority made up of various state officials and a representative from the Kentucky School Boards Association would oversee the bond pool.

House committee approves bill to redraw state House districts

By Jack Brammer

PDF: House redistricting plan

FRANKFORT — Over protests from Republicans, a state House committee approved a bill Wednesday to redraw boundaries of the 100 state House districts.

The new House redistricting plan, prepared by House Democratic leadership, puts nine incumbents in districts with other incumbent representatives.

That affects eight incumbent Republicans and one Democrat.

House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, and Rep. Jill York, R-Grayson, would both be in the 99th House District.