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Occupying Frankfort

By Bob Babbage

FRANKFORT gets a bum rap. The uniquely beautiful town boasts great history, quaint districts and stunning river vistas, with the striking marble capitol set on a park-like hilltop.

But all the world’s problems join at the seat of government, and it takes a village of guests to tackle the issues, and sometimes each other. It’s the daytime tussles that tag Frankfort as tough.

Of the House, Senate and Executive Branch, three faces loom large. Of the 100 House members, 38 in the Senate, and dozens of key leaders in the cabinets, answers center on Gov. Steve Beshear, House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President David Williams. Ideas, meanwhile, come from everywhere.

The trio carries the duty of moving issues to the forefront that beg for action.
In his Jan. 17 budget address, the Beshear budget’s frame holds a shocking picture to many. After enduring three years of constant shaving, state functions will be cut again and cut deeply.

State budget director Mary Lassister and other economists don’t see a normalization of state revenues until late in 2014.

Back when Gingrich was taking over Congress and Gatewood was gearing up to run for governor again, 1994 had another interesting topic looming on the edges in Frankfort. Gaming sticks around.

For President David Williams Senate, “expanded gaming on the ballot” is an enduring issue. To get a Nov. 6 vote on a constitutional amendment takes 23 of 38 senators.

Williams is opposed, but his majority caucus appears divided. Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, is on the point, working with Gov. Beshear on the precise details of the ballot question and the new aspects of gaming, were this to pass.

The Senate Democrats, headed by R.J. Palmer, appear largely united to “let the people vote” on gaming. Polling shows four out of five Kentuckians favor the question going on the ballot, regardless of whether they will vote yes or no.
Stumbo knows gaming well. His House majority passed a gaming bill three years ago. It would take 60 of 100 House members to OK the step. If gaming gets the “go” from voters, the 2013 legislature would enact the laws to start it.
Rep. Dennis Keene, D-Wilder and Rep. Mike Nemes, R-Louisville, already have bills filed on how gaming would work.

There are other dinosaurs in the room.

Kentucky’s tax structure is Byzantine, dating back to the post-war era. It begs for modernization as a half-dozen objective studies have shown. Almost every state has the same exact problem.

bramson has been picked by Gov. Beshear to head a reform commission, which will take up the specifics of change this year.

House members Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, Bill Farmer, R-Lexington and Jeff Hoover, the House Republican leader, are ready now to slice and dice a new revenue equation. All eyes will land here before things get finished with parts to shoot at, parts to cherish.

Pension debt is an anvil tied to state budgets; all of them. Ours is one of the worst problems. Basically, we owe a ton to retirees from public service, and we did not put the funds away over the years.

Rhode Island just punted on similar obligations, smashing its promises to public servants like crystal on concrete. Kentucky’s budget gurus, Sen. Bob Leeper, I-Paducah, and Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, have a huge job to figure this out. Punting is not the likely answer here.

Education is the bedrock of state action, the equivalent of the defense function in the federal ranks – protection for the future. Two more years of cuts will further hamstring the schools and universities, which face myriad expenses against a declining economic reality. Tuition pays the freight, and donors are key.

Look for the House and Senate to struggle with the funding puzzle, including Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway; Rep. Linda Belcher, R-Shepherdsville; Sen. Ken Winters, a former college president; and Sen. Denise Harper Angel.

Former Gov. Paul Patton, now president of the University of Pikeville, will ask for his college to join the state system, a proposal backed by Speaker Stumbo.
Medicaid’s reform will get the measuring stick to check the savings, applied by Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, and a host of interest groups from among the 600 registered lobbyists in the statehouse. “Show me the money” – and better health.

Prison reform, widely hailed in 2011, will get a reality review. Is there real savings, both in terms of money and human improvement? Sen. Tom Jensen, R-London, and Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, are rising figures, central to the discussion.

Chief Justice John Minton, still pushing other reforms, Justice and Public Safety Secretary J. Michael Brown and Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson must defend the sea change with hard numbers.

Most claim to be on the side of the angels, but this time there’s a sure shot.
Rep. Arnold Simpson is getting traction for a new economic development tool, the angel investor tax credit, essential for small start-ups as well as for competing with Tennessee and Ohio. Adjust your halo accordingly.

In the “What if?” category comes a 2013 dream for partisan advancement.

First lady Jane Beshear is a stalwart for civic causes that matter. Robin Williams and Mary Karen Stumbo have highly impressive records as fundraisers, speakers and advocates for major change.

Were this trio to unite – drawing their families plus an army of friends – to raise awareness and funding, Kentucky would have a million-dollar day to remember.
If the target were early March, for example, the harmony could spill over into the marble halls just as spring flowers line Capitol Avenue.