By Scott Payton
Legislative Research Commission
Public Relations Dept.
FRANKFORT, Ky. (Feb. 18, 2013) — Thirty-day legislative sessions have a special rhythm, which contrasts vividly with full-blown 60-day regular sessions. With no budget to write, no re-election filing deadline looming at month’s end to make incumbents wary of taking up controversial bills, and just half the time to get stuff done, the short session’s major issues usually break from the gate quickly.
We saw that dramatically last week – the first week back from the normally scheduled recess after January’s four organizational days — when the Senate passed a complex and potentially landmark bill to revamp the state’s badly underfunded retirement systems for public employees.
The Senate pension reform plan calls for full annual funding of the systems by 2015, creates a new hybrid pension plan for future hires reflecting the familiar 401K but with a guaranteed 4 percent return, and repeals automatic annual cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. The bill includes no specified funding stream, something Senate leaders say can best be discussed in next year’s budget session.
But some House leaders disagree, and say funding assurances are needed now if the legislature is to commit to full actuarial funding. This week, they were mulling options (including a cigarette tax increase) before they take up the pension reform bill. A major complication is, revenue measures in short sessions require a three-fifths majority to pass. That’s an awfully steep hill and a big rock to push.
Special taxing districts
The House also moved quickly on its own top priority the first week back, a bill to get a handle on the proliferation of special taxing districts around the state (local entities that fund such services as libraries and fire and sewer districts).
House Bill 1 would require central oversight, with public accountability and transparency, in the operations of some 1200 such districts statewide. The bill would create consistent rules for requiring districts to disclose and file financial information. It also would impose penalties, including the possible loss of state funds and audits, on those who don’t provide the required information.
The bill passed the House last Friday with only one dissenting vote.
The session’s quick start was goosed along by the fact, for the first session in years, there’s no revenue shortfall to deal with. That fact alone generated momentum. So did changes in public sentiment.
Statewide smoking ban
Something that would have been an explosive issue not many years ago – a statewide ban on smoking in all workplaces, including bars and restaurants – sailed through a House committee the first week, and is now poised for possible full chamber consideration.
Once again this year, the House Education Committee has passed a bill raising the school dropout age from 16 to 17 and finally 18 by the year 2018. The bill passed the full House 87-10 in short order Thursday, and supporters expressed optimism that the idea – which has failed previous attempts in the Senate – might fare better in that chamber this year. In fact, the Senate Education Committee Thursday passed its own version of a dropout-age bill, this one allowing – but not requiring – individual districts to raise the age, at their discretion and on their own timetable.
We saw the quick start continuing this second week when another Senate committee unanimously approved – and the full chamber voted 31-6 to pass – a bill legalizing industrial hemp production in Kentucky. Hemp is seen by advocates as a potential boon to Kentucky’s flagging farm economy. Tobacco farmers, especially, could make that transition easily, and need an alternate cash crop.
Law enforcement officials, charged with eradicating marijuana (a much stronger strain of the industrial hemp plant, which has little of marijuana’s active ingredient THC) have opposed the bill. The governor has echoed their concerns. House leaders have expressed doubts about the true economic potential of hemp, and also noted the law-enforcement objection.
There’s also a hang-up to the bill itself, should it pass and be signed into law: Kentucky would have to wait for federal law to catch up. The Feds still consider industrial hemp cultivation illegal, something three members of Kentucky’s Congressional delegation testifying in favor of the Senate bill told lawmakers this week they’re working to change in Washington.
Hemp is, clearly, a still-evolving issue.
So here at week’s end, most of the session’s expected issues are on the table and moving. But then again, it’s not unusual – in either short or long sessions – for unexpected bills to explode onstage like a stray firecracker someone overlooked. We saw that last session when the radio was suddenly full of ads from an industry group opposed to restrictions on pseudoephedrine, a common cold and allergy decongestant (and precursor to cooking illegal meth).
This year, a little-noticed piece of legislation (judging by mentions in pre-session news analyses, and general pre-session chatter) is also suddenly on the radio a lot, this time with ads actually urging support for a bill, Senate Bill 9. The bill seeks to discourage what its supporters and the nursing home industry call frivolous lawsuits that, they say, cost the facilities money that could better be directed toward resident care,
After a spirited and sometimes emotional debate Wednesday, during which one opponent showed graphic photos of nursing-home patients in distress, the Senate approved the bill 23-12.
SB 9 would create a medical review panel to assess lawsuits alleging abuse at nursing homes. It would consist of three doctors, mediated by an attorney, who would review evidence in lawsuits brought against long-term care facilities. That panel would then issue a finding on whether there was a legitimate claim of neglect or abuse.
Nothing in the bill would actually prevent a lawsuit from going to court. But the panel’s ruling on the complaint’s legitimacy would be admissible evidence, presumably persuasive to the court. This, supporters say, would discourage casual or unjustified lawsuits that drain money from an already financially stressed industry.
The bill was sent on to the House, where its fate is uncertain. Leaders there have characterized its journey through that chamber as likely to be ‘a little rockier,’ though they say it has ‘some support.’
Despite rapid progress on many fronts as the session nears its halfway point (after today, Friday, Feb 15, only 17 of its allotted 30 working days are left), the elephant in the room, tax reform, is still out there lurking, cloaked and not acted-upon. Even at this relatively late hour, no comprehensive tax-reform bill is yet under active committee discussion.
Common wisdom has been all along that tax reform – something the governor has pushed for strongly, and not next year but this – might require him to call a later special session. In that setting, there’s no time limit and the three-fifths rule doesn’t apply. But that’s a story yet to be known or told. The only certainty is, time is running short this regular session for an agreement of such controversial complexity.
Reach Scott Payton at [email protected]. The Kentucky Legislature Home Page, www.lrc.ky.gov, provides information on each of the commonwealth’s senators and representatives, including phone numbers, addressees and committee assignments. The site also provides bill texts, a bill-tracking service and committee meeting schedules.