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Perspective: Slow change in Frankfort

By Dave Adkisson

Anyone who has spent even a small amount of time around the state Capitol in Frankfort knows that policy changes happen slowly. Regardless of the topic or the promise of progress, most proposals are subject to multiyear deliberations in the General Assembly.

In many cases, that can be a good thing as disagreements are worked out, challenges are overcome, and a smoother path is paved toward implementation.

The Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky.
The Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky.

In other cases, however, frustration builds as initiatives that have enjoyed bipartisan support fail to win final passage session after session.

That, in essence, was the story of the 2015 General Assembly. There were definitely some positive steps – some of them, such as legislation addressing heroin and telecommunications, coming after several years of consideration.

But Kentucky’s business community found another chapter of the story to be disappointing because of the many pro-business bills that were left hanging in the balance when the final gavel fell.

First, the positive session results:

  • Kentucky’s telecommunications systems can now be modernized more quickly.
  • The state Road Fund was stabilized be establishing a floor under declining gas tax revenues.
  • Legislation to curb the lethal threat of heroin was passed and likely will save lives.
  • On the most pressing issue facing state government – its underfunded public pension systems – a few bills passed that should help put a brighter light on the operations of the systems, but more work is needed here.
  • And, always of particular interest to the employers we represent through the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, no bills were passed in this session that were particularly harmful to the broad business community.

The disappointments:

  • Public-private partnerships legislation had amazing support last year in the House and Senate and strong bipartisan support going into this year’s session, but died in the Kentucky Senate without even getting a committee hearing or a vote on the floor (where many are confident the bill would have passed).
  • Local-option sales tax authorization for cities and counties, which is favored two-to-one among business leaders we surveyed, passed in the House only to die in the Senate without even a committee hearing or a floor vote.
  • Smoke-free legislation favored by a nine-to-one margin by Chamber members passed the House, only to die in the Senate without a committee hearing or a floor vote.
  • An initiative to independently study the state teacher retirement system, which the Chamber has been advocating since early 2014, was championed by the Senate but died in negotiations with the House.
  • Right-to-work legislation, enacted by most of Kentucky’s competitor states and gaining traction in local communities, won passage in the Senate but failed to get a hearing in the House.
  • A Senate-passed bill to allow the creation of charter schools to give parents a broader choice for their children’s education once again failed without even a House committee hearing.
  • Legislation to create an impartial process of medical review panels to deter meritless lawsuits against medical providers passed the Senate but failed without a hearing in the House.

The failure of some of these measures, such as charter schools or right to work, was not particularly surprising due to the longstanding alignment of partisan interests on both sides of the debate. Other legislation, however, had substantial bipartisan support. That made their failure particularly jarring.

Anyone working to advance Kentucky can expect to encounter some obstacles, and we continue to hope that, as Kentuckians with a shared goal of making progress for our state, we can take at least two steps forward for every one step backward.

But it’s tough to celebrate a few successes when important issues with strong bipartisan support fail due to the clumsy nature of the legislative process or a lack of commitment to finding ways to overcome those barriers.

Dave Adkisson is president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.