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January 13, 2016
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Trio Tackles Intractable Challenges in Frankfort

Gov. Matt Bevin, Senate President Robert Stivers and House Speaker Greg Stumbo face difficult budget writing decisions

By Bob Babbage

frankforttrio

(from left) Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, Senate President Robert Stivers.

Three major personalities join a legion of colleagues, centers of influence, staff experts and engaged citizens to wrestle one large mission: exactly how to spend roughly $10 billion in each of the next two years.

The “Big 3” leaders are Gov. Matt Bevin, new to Frankfort, Senate President Robert Stivers, elected to the legislature before Bevin even moved to Kentucky, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who has taken the state oath of office almost 20 times.

For all the competing parts of a state budget, for Kentucky it comes down to the “pension debt” versus everything else. The governor insists it all starts with the pension solution; almost all agree.

Figuring into the figuring it out are the two budget chairs, Rep. Rick Rand from rural Bedford, and Sen. Chris McDaniel, from urban Kenton County. Both constantly wrestle with financial graphs.

Sen. Joe Bowen, an Owensboro Republican, has worked closely with lawmakers in recent months on the pension question.

Allocating road funds is another intersection where needs outweigh resources. The transportation budget chairs, Sen. Max Wise and Rep. Leslie Combs, both hail from rural regions. Taxes paid on fuel fund highways and bridges.

Every legislator can cite a list of road needs back home. Two experts with broad, experienced views are Rep. Hubert Collins and Sen. Ernie Harris, chairs of the transportation committees. Add another strong voice in these decisions, Rep. Sannie Overly, herself an engineer and lawyer.

Tax reform, always looming in the corridors of power, but rarely for serious consideration, could emerge as a major subject. Like many states, Kentucky suffers from an antiquated taxing model, dating back to the middle of the last century. A more modern system holds the key to more income, a better match to the economy, experts say.

Organizing what comes when are the majority leaders, the point guards who run the floor in each chamber. For the Senate, Damon Thayer from Georgetown sets the pace and priorities in concert with Republican leaders.

For the House it is Rep. Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook whose voice is heard to call up the agenda part by part.

Hot-button issues could take center stage, mainly any re-reform of expanded Medicaid, a substantial financial dimension already dictated by past actions.

The governor has named Mark Birdwhistell, a former health secretary and Medicaid head, to figure out a new approach aimed for 2017.

Also central to this push is Vickie Yates Brown Glisson, the current top health official.

The health chairs for the House and Senate will figure in significantly. Sen. Julie Raque Adams, a Louisville Republican, is in her second year guiding the Senate health panel. So, too, will Stivers and Stumbo.

Rep. Tom Burch, a Louisville Democrat, was first elected to the General Assembly in 1972, leading the Health Committee for numerous sessions.

A hot topic is charter private schools.

Education Secretary Hal Heiner will be center stage on charter schools as will Rep. Derrick Graham, a Frankfort Democrat, who chairs the Education Committee. For the Senate watch for Sen. Mike Wilson, a charter proponent, who heads Education.

Funding for education, like almost all major issues, hits home with every lawmaker. Rep. Reggie Meeks, Rep. Kelly Flood and Sen. C.B. Embry take the lead roles on school and college financing.

The governor says charter schools may have to wait on the larger task of budget writing. Right-to-work could be a  symbolic vote in the Senate, with the House pushing RTW into neutral for the time being.

Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton will make small business growth her focus.

Voting rights for scores of felons takes the stage as Gov. Bevin rescinded the action by Gov. Steve Beshear restoring this privilege.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield leads this work for the Senate. The Hopkinsville Republican lost a close race to Andy Beshear for attorney general last November. Given their roles, the two officials, Beshear and Westerfield, will be rejoined in debate as the legislature progresses.

The House has a new chair for the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Darryl Owens of Louisville.  Owens brings a long tenure to a complex set of issues ranging from prison costs to stemming drug addiction.

Former Rep. John Tilley worked closely with Westerfield on reforms for both drug abuse and changing the lives of persons who are incarcerated. Now Tilley heads the Justice Cabinet, which handles myriad services and challenges.

One overarching statistic will lurk in every meeting room and most meetings.  With 100 House seats, 51 is the number needed to control the House of Representatives outright.

Right now it’s 50-46 for the Democrats.

On March 8, there are four special elections to replace two Republicans elected statewide, Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles and State Auditor Mike Harmon, along with seats in Hopkinsville and the Ashland area.

While many votes will be taken on many bills, the citizen votes for these four seats could color the House agenda, plus the outcome of dozens of decisions.

Meanwhile the Senate is 27-11 for the Republicans.

Bob Babbage is a leading lobbyist, cofounder of Babbage Cofounder.

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