Home » Legislative session: It’s not over until it’s over

Legislative session: It’s not over until it’s over

 Busy week at the capitol; four days left to hammer out compromises

By LRC Public Information Office

FRANKFORT, Ky. (March 8, 2013) – In the long run-up to a legislative session, all things (more or less) seem possible. In its denouement – like the reworked calendar of four working days we enter now at a truncated week’s end – the question becomes: What, now, is really possible?

Senate Majority Whip Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, left, confers with Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, as Sen. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello, looks on.
Senate Majority Whip Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, left, confers Thursday with Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, as Sen. Sara Beth Gregory, R-Monticello, looks on.

If politics is the art of answering that question, at no time does that become clearer than a session’s bone-weary mop-up.

The gray winter’s-end landscape is littered with dead bills, crippled bills, and bills on life support. But representative government has worked its magic, too. Some bills are safely in the barn, others close or on their way. Surprises come as no surprise, in these end times. Resurrection, this Easter season tells us, can be accomplished in just three days. Through a change in schedule to skip Friday and push it into next week, we now have four days left in the legislative session.

And it’s important to remember: Just as God answers all prayers, though sometimes the answer is no, the legislative process itself succeeds with all bills. Sometimes its answer is no. Sometimes, ‘not yet.’ But it’s important to remember that defeat or even failure to act is action. It tells you something politically about a bill, what’s possible, what the people want.

One successful bill this session – a major priority from day one – refines a measure than had its first bumpy passage last session: the Pill Mill Bill. This session saw a successful and bipartisan push to correct some unintended consequences of what (by almost every account) has been fundamentally successful legislation.

House Bill 217 makes what supporters call some common-sense tweaks to the law, clarifying protocols in dispensing pain meds for legitimate need without diluting the original bill’s intent: Stopping the rampant abuse of prescription drugs in Kentucky, fueled by ‘clinics’ that fed death to pain-pill addicts – more death each year than our highways see.

Officials have cited great success in that effort. Several unlicensed pain-management clinics have shuttered and left Kentucky – “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” as one legislative leader put it. Prescriptions for the most killingly addictive drugs have dropped every month since the bill’s implementation, more than 10 percent so far, all told.

But some doctors and patients with legitimate needs found a few regulatory aspects of the law burdensome. And after multiple meetings with health providers, law enforcement and licensure boards and other involved agencies, lawmakers drew up several tweaks to make the law better reflect the realities of legitimate day-to-day medical practice.

For example, background checks through the state’s electronic prescription drug monitoring system (KASPER) for controlled substances will no longer be required for pain medications dispensed to patients at hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice centers. The bill also lifts restrictions on access to pain meds for the terminally ill, and for patients recovering from surgery.

Meanwhile, another top pre-session priority – legislation to get a handle on the proliferation of special taxing districts across the state – has passed both chambers. But the versions differ, and those differences must be reconciled before final passage and a trip downstairs to the governor’s office to be signed into law.

Estimates are there are more than 1,200 special taxing districts across the state, in 117 of Kentucky’s 120 counties. They are locally imposed, and pay for services like libraries, water and sewer districts, and fire protection. House Bill 1 would require all ‘special purpose government entities’ in the state to electronically submit administrative and financial information to the Department of Local Government. That information would then be posted in an online registry and available for public inspection. Districts that don’t comply would be subject to state audit. The intent is transparency and accountability in situations where cumulatively vast sums of public tax dollars – well over $2 billion, by some estimates – are collected and spent.

But the Senate version of the bill goes further, and also gives fiscal courts the power to veto certain tax and fee increases proposed by special districts. That’s an expansion of the simpler oversight and transparency envisioned by the House. Still, with four session days left, there’s time to work out a compromise; the special-districts bill is still alive and kicking.

Another widely watched bill – legalizing cultivation of industrial hemp in Kentucky, pending federal approval – is alive but hanging on by a frayed thread.

After passing the Senate by a substantial margin earlier this session, it passed the House Agriculture Committee this week. But a House leader (who has expressed skepticism about the bill all along) says the likelihood of it reaching the House floor this year is slight. Opponents of the measure say they remain unconvinced about the potential market for hemp as an alternative cash crop, share law-enforcement concerns because the low-THC plant so closely resembles drug-grade marijuana, and add that the whole question is moot anyway as long as federal illegality remains in effect.

Redistricting was another pre-session ‘big issues’ mention, and the House indeed passed its own self-reapportionment plan this week, over minority party objections and in the face of little indication the Senate was receptive to taking up the issue this session.

As for the session’s two other big issues (the biggest, as defined by pre-session discussion), tax reform has never even risen to committee consideration; and public employee pension reform – though it has passed both chambers, albeit in dramatically different forms – remains in a procedural limbo.

At week’s end, though, leaders were reported trying to find a pension-reform compromise both chambers could sign on to, with discussions ongoing. That is a developing situation, helped along by Thursday’s decision to change the session calendar to push Friday’s official working day ahead to Monday.

As the schedule now stands, Monday and Tuesday are designated ‘concurrence days,’ during which the House and Senate deal with bills that passed both but got amended in one so their versions differ. After Tuesday– again, as the schedule now stands – lawmakers will go home for a 10-day ‘veto recess,’ the length of time a governor has to sign a bill, let it become law without his signature, or veto it. Taking that 10-day recess gives the Legislature the opportunity to override vetoes.

The current schedule calls for lawmakers to come back to Frankfort March 25 and 26 for that purpose.

One thing you should note: Legislators can still pass legislation on the legislative session’s last day or days – or the last minute of the last midnight hour, for that matter. They simply give up the right to override vetoes. So a bill thought dead and buried this week could, if sentiment broke in favor of it during recess and a procedural path was clear, rise to live again and pass. As noted, with Legislatures, the only surprise is no surprise. More colloquially: Things ain’t over till sine die.

For more information, email [email protected].