Tricky sailing in Frankfort

By Bob Babbage

Our dear ship of State, sails billowing in Frankfort for the blustery season, faces choppy waters and uncertain trade winds, but a chipper, focused, highly prepared crew.

State Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and former state Rep. Mike Cherry, D-Princeton, discuss an issue during a November interim legislative gathering.
State Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and former state Rep. Mike Cherry, D-Princeton, discuss an issue during a November interim legislative gathering in Frankfort.
Bob Babbage
Bob Babbage

Count on two engaging Eastern Kentucky personalities to chart the course – new Senate President Robert Stivers joined with veteran House Speaker Greg Stumbo, both solidly at the helm.

A river of debt is a chief concern. Pension obligations total billions, not in the bank, while other financial crises pull on the budget like a tugboat dragging a coal barge.

Added navigation will come from Sen. Damon Thayer, now the majority floor leader, a student of fiscal storms and solutions.

The governor’s first rate first mate, Mary Lassiter, heads the Cabinet and carries the budget in her head.

Where money matters, two wise budget chairs weigh in, Sen. Bob Leeper and Rep. Rick Rand. Tax reform, badly needed, may take a special session for full action some hands say, but pieces are possible now.

Major waves from healthcare reform are constant. Add 300,000 to Medicaid rolls, this in light of the new managed care savings? What about the governor-backed Health Benefits Exchange already in construction, but sure to get legislative attention?

Sen. Julie Denton, the health chair, will guide.

The slowly growing number of women in the legislature often sail to the lead on health questions from Rep. Susan Westrom of Lexington to Rep. Addia Wuchner from Northern Kentucky.

Another dynamic woman is Audrey Tayse Haynes, health secretary, mover of a burgeoning agenda covering chronic care, all federal aspects and pressing news, like mental health and children.

Always on the horizon for the past 20 years is expanded gaming, the blue skies of new revenue shaded by a few clouds. Gov. Steve Beshear is captain here just as a major new casino is set to open in Cincinnati, a boon to the Buckeye budget, but no take for the Bluegrass. Gaming stays afloat, perhaps drifting into 2014.

Bridging the Ohio in more ways than one, advocates will push for a new span across the river in Northern Kentucky, hoping to mirror Louisville’s progress in moving commerce north to south. New money will take new means, so private investment and tolling are options for a vote.

Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock is on deck, buoyed by Sen. Ernie Harris and Rep. Sannie Overly, who chair road funding decisions.

Anchoring key commands are venerable House Speaker Pro-Tem Larry Clark and the voice of daily action, Rep. Rocky Adkins, the floor leader. Sen. Katie Stine, the highest ranking woman, often chairs the chamber. Hazard Sen. Brandon Smith joins the leadership ranks.

Future top admirals with careers briskly sailing have issues loaded for action.

Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson will carry tax reform end to end on the third floor of the statehouse and border to border.

Jamie Comer, the popular commissioner of agriculture, wants to see industrial hemp grown for major farm income.

Growing the democratic process will be discussed by Alison Lundergan Grimes, currently reviewing the “early voting” process against Kentucky’s restrictive rules for voting ahead of Election Day.

General Assembly members exchange ideas during a November interim gathering. Pictured, from left, are House Speaker Greg Stumbo, House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, former Rep. Danny Ford, Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark and Rep. Joseph Fischer.
General Assembly members exchange ideas during a November interim gathering in Frankfort. Pictured, from left, are House Speaker Greg Stumbo, House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, former Rep. Danny Ford, Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark and Rep. Joseph Fischer.

Jack Conway, attorney general, has a ready-made agenda, from the pill mill clamp-down to prison reform.

Crime and punishment also draws Rep. John Tilley, who chairs House Judiciary, along with J. Michael Brown, secretary of justice.

Adam Edelen, the state auditor, found $2 billion in special districts that gets little review, including a ton of cash on hand. Both Thayer and Stumbo have a high interest in this as well, opening a bipartisan channel.

Officers in their own right will appear. Big-city mayors, Democrats Jim Gray of Lexington and Greg Fischer of Louisville, have shared interests as well as hometown concerns. Add them to the growing 2015 election list.

Congressman Brett Guthrie, a former state senator, could well run by Frankfort to salute the ranks, firing up 2015 chatter, as might banker Jess Correll, along with K.C. Crosbie, recently a statewide contender.

So will Crit Luallen, former state auditor and presumed future candidate.

Education, an overarching concern, needs all hands on high alert, which Rep. Carl Rollins will remind all.

A lurking sea monster, rarely seen, is redistricting. Both law and legend say it’s out there under the surface, but don’t expect a sighting soon. This is special stuff for a special session, seasoned hands say, which few treasure.

Of the 138 lawmakers onboard, about one in seven is a rookie, a large regiment making their maiden voyage.

Many issues, stranded in the off-season, will be seized by elected heroes and others of varying stripes – advocates, lobbyists, key staff, then association, organization or college executives, along with business experts, reporters and editors, with ordinary but worried citizens.

The deadline for action is set by constitution, added by the popular vote creating odd-year short sessions 13 years ago. It is April Fool’s Day.

Bob Babbage, former secretary of state and state auditor, heads Babbage Cofounder.

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