Home » The veto recess: Pension reform, hemp hang in the balance

The veto recess: Pension reform, hemp hang in the balance

Other major bills passed and sent to the governor

This Week in Frankfort
By LRC Public Information

FRANKFORT, Ky. (March 15, 2013) — A civics textbook on Kentucky government would tell you this: The legislature then goes into veto recess, 10 days excluding Sundays, when lawmakers go home to await gubernatorial vetoes, before coming back to Frankfort for the session’s last working day or two to consider veto overrides.

Senate Democratic Floor Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, center, and Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, left, answer questions Tuesday from reporters about a compromise reached on a taxation bill during a conference committee meeting.
Senate Democratic Floor Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, center, and Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, left, answer questions Tuesday from reporters about a compromise reached on a taxation bill during a conference committee meeting. The legislature is now on veto recess.

Real life 2013 translation: The legislature is now in veto recess, 10 days plus Sundays during which rank-and-file lawmakers are home with phones ringing off the wall. Getting an earful, pro and con, from constituents. Getting buttonholed in the produce section of Pic-Pac on Saturday morning. Answering questions after church. All while trying to piece together their neglected ‘real’ lives and jobs while making speeches to Kiwanis Clubs and Chambers of Commerce about what the session has done so far, and may yet do.

RELATED: Legislators continue negotiating pension reform during veto recess

And 10 days during which leaders and other key players are talking informally among themselves about some live but unresolved bills, big ones and even some little ones, left on the board when the legislature went home Tuesday night. Their hope: To reach consensus or at least compromise that can lead to quick, successful resolution when the legislature returns for ‘veto days’ that are called that, but are almost always much more than that.

(OK, expanded civics text: Under Kentucky’s Constitution, a governor has 10 days to sign a bill into law, veto it, or as a presumed statement of some disapproval but not too awfully much, let it become law without doing either. The legislature builds into its schedule every year a veto recess to give that time period a chance to elapse, leaving a day or two to come back to override vetoes. In practice, those days are usually consumed with tidying up and trying to pass bills stalled or at impasse when ‘normal’ time ran out. Bills can still be passed during veto days; they just aren’t ‘veto proof.’)

When the legislature recessed this week, no bigger or more difficult bill was left in limbo than public-employee pension reform. Discussions were said to be ongoing, though their prospects for success are considered highly uncertain. It’s still a bill very much in play, though, even across a wide gap in structural approaches, and with funding a particular sticking point. To fund or not to fund, that is the question this session. The House insists on it. The Senate says it can and should wait till next year’s budget session.

But there are other hanging issues too, notably Senate Bill 50, a bill to allow the farming of industrial hemp in Kentucky, with a couple of big ‘ifs’ attached. The current federal ban on growing hemp would have to be lifted or Kentucky would have to receive a federal waiver to grow it (some members of Kentucky’s Congressional delegation say they’re working toward both).

Supporters say industrial hemp would be a boon and a natural transition for Kentucky farmers weaning themselves off tobacco as their primary cash crop.

The hemp bill has had an up-and-down trip through the process. It passed the Senate handily early in the session, but appeared DOA in the House – not even getting out of committee till its second try — until late last week.

Friday, House leaders said they would allow consideration of a floor amendment that would presumably assuage some law-enforcement (and gubernatorial) concerns by putting both the UK Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky State Police commissioner in top positions on a Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, and by switching licensing of participants in a five-year hemp growers and processors ‘demonstration project’ to the state police.

Another bill in legislative limbo would make it easier for Kentucky soldiers overseas to vote via electronic transmission. The actual process for doing so has yet to be agreed upon, and as it now stands, the bill is slated to be taken up in conference committee during the veto days.

Major bills sent to governor

Still, major bills have passed both chambers and been sent to the governor too – 107 bills all told, some of greater or lesser scope than others — but lawmakers on recess are likely telling those hometown Kiwanis Clubs about some of these:

♦ After years of struggle and failure, a bipartisan compromise was finally achieved Monday on a bill aimed at raising the high school dropout age in Kentucky from 16 to 18.  Senate Bill 9 would allow – but not at this point require — local school districts across the state to increase the compulsory attendance age to 18, if they choose. But districts that decide to do so must have programs and resources in place for students at-risk of not completing their requirements for graduation.

While not a statewide requirement, the compromise does have a tipping point – it mandates that all Kentucky high schools implement the increased dropout age within four years after 55 percent of individual school districts have adopted the change. This allows individual school districts to make initial decisions based on local needs and concerns, but also promotes uniformity in schools across the state when a ‘critical mass’ consensus is achieved.

♦ House Bill 1 — a major House priority, as evidence by its honorific bill number — was sent to the governor’s desk this week, too. It brings what supporters call much-needed transparency and accountability to the more than 1,200 special taxing districts across the state, in at least 117 of Kentucky’s 120 counties. They fund public library boards, fire departments, water and sewer systems and other specific local services. A big pot of public money is involved: By some estimates, it approaches $3 billion, and yes, that’s with a ‘b’. And by some accounts, they collectively hold more than a billion more in reserve.

Sponsors of the bill acknowledge that most special districts provide needed services to their communities and do the job well, but sometimes leave taxpayers in the dark on how, specifically, their money is being spent.

The bill would put education and ethics rules in place for those special-purpose entities and create an online central registry to publicly disclose their annual budgets and other pertinent information.

As settled in conference committee and passed in both chambers, the bill would also require that all special taxing districts submit a budget report to their local fiscal court. If a special district wanted to impose a new fee or increase the rate of an existing tax, it would have to hold a public hearing prior to the change in conjunction with a fiscal court meeting. While this doesn’t provide the direct local oversight and veto authority some lawmakers wanted, the bill is considered an important step forward in keeping taxpayers informed and the folks taxing them accountable.

Human trafficking, child abuse review panel

Other bills got final passage this week, too. Among them, an anti-human trafficking measure – House Bill 3, which could more graphically and pointedly be called an anti-sexual-slavery bill – that would increase penalties for anyone convicted of the crime, while protecting victims (primarily young girls) from prosecution for crimes they were forced to commit, like prostitution, and offering them state social services.

Another measure related to crimes against children, House Bill 290 would create a 20-person review panel for cases of child abuse- and neglect-related fatalities and near-fatalities. The panel would be given access to complete records of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, as well as information from law enforcement and other agencies involved in the case.

The legislature reconvenes March 25-26 to wrap up its 2013 session.

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