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Public Policy | Once in a Generation Session

Large gumbo of 2018 issues are mixed into what will be a fiscal pressure cooker

By Bob Babbage and Julie Babbage

Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon (right), is sworn in as Senate President Pro Tem by the Honorable Samuel T. Spalding, Judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit, as Higdon’s family watches on the opening day of the 2018 General Assembly session.
Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon (right), is sworn in as Senate President Pro Tem by the Honorable Samuel T. Spalding, Judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit, as Higdon’s family watches on the opening day of the 2018 General Assembly session.

In the great gumbo that is Frankfort politics, leaders and advocates find themselves stuck in rare, boiling soup. Once in generation, there comes a vote on something as complex as the pension crisis now facing the state. This time, however, a dramatic state spending reduction is required, a road building plan is to be decided, and tax reform debated.

Each of these dense issues alone feels like a pressure cooker.

Gov. Matt Bevin enters the second half of his term with record-smashing private-sector economic investment in 2017. He continues to press initiatives aimed at cutting “red tape” and pushing workforce advancements.

Top of mind is the governor’s call to action for pension reform, postponed by a special session that wasn’t. The pension fix is now in the hands of lawmakers. The majority headed by Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) was ready to vote some time ago.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R- Georgetown) has outlined revisions to the original proposal from last September, and intends to keep pension reform top of list.

The minority floor leader, Sen. Ray Jones (D-Pikeville), is offering advice based on his 17 years of service, while running for Pike County judge-executive this year.

Experience marks the Senate leadership. President Pro Tem Jimmy Higdon (R-Lebanon) first served in the House in 2003. The caucus chair, Sen. Dan Seum (R-Fairdale), has 32 years of service. New Majority Whip Sen. Mike Wilson (R-Bowling Green) is completing his second Senate term.

Once the governor gives his budget address, the House by constitution is first to take it up. Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne (R-Prospect) is serving as acting speaker, leading a 64-member super majority. Speaker Jeff Hoover (R-Jamestown)  formally resigned from leadership due to a sexual harassment controversy, and an ethics commission formal review, plus a special House investigative committee and a related legal case will shape what comes next regarding leading that chamber.

House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell (R-Lancaster), GOP Caucus Chair David Meade (R-Stanford) and Majority Whip David Bratcher (R-Louisville) help guide the sequence and outcome of decisions.

House Minority Leader Rep. Rocky Adkins (D-Sandy Hook) heads the 36-member House Democrats, first elected to the body 31 years ago. The caucus is chaired by Rep. Dennis Keene (D-Wilder). Rep. Wilson Stone (D- Scottsville) rounds out this team.

The two budget chairs are constantly involved in the fiscal dilemma posed by the pension problem.

Sen. Christian McDaniel (R-Taylor Mill) heads a concrete company in Kenton County, bringing an understanding of construction. Rep. Steven Rudy (R-Paducah) is part owner of a farm equipment company from Paducah, representing rural counties on the Mississippi River border.

This budget cycle puts everything on the table, experts and advocates fear. Many numbers in the old budget will be pared to fit the new. K-12 education funding is on the chopping block for the first time ever.

Education is an issue with many cooks in the kitchen.

Rep. John “Bam” Carney (R-Campbellsville), who chairs House Education, is a veteran classroom teacher and was at the epicenter of last year’s charter school debate.

Sen. Max Wise (R-Cambellsville) is the new chair for Senate Education, UK Patterson School of Diplomacy professor. Both lawmakers hail from Taylor County in south-central Kentucky.

Their committees will likely hear consideration about local school councils’ authority. For over 20 years, the councils have chosen school principals.

Sen. John Schickel (R-Union) proposes giving school district superintendents a hand in interviewing, then recommending principals who ultimately report to them.

Fiscal conditions impact the physical condition of the commonwealth. For now, experts estimate that Kentucky’s Medicaid program is at least $300 million short each of the two coming years. Public health and health departments are sliced razor thin.

Many states will track Kentucky’s progress under the federal “Medicaid waiver” soon to be approved in Washington, which allows changes and innovations to traditional Medicaid. Rep. Kim Moser (R-Taylor Mill) chairs the Medicaid Oversight Committee.

Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) and Rep. Addia Wuchner (R-Florence) head up the respective Health committees. Each has a sizable, unrelenting agenda including the many fields of healthcare.

Licensing and occupations often includes how health professionals work, chaired by Rep. Adam Koenig (R-Erlanger) and Sen. Schickel, both Republicans from Northern Kentucky. 

The Banking and Insurance panel’s broad scope includes health coverage. Veteran Sen. Tom Buford (R-Nicholasville) and Rep. Bart Rowland (R-Tompkinsville), an insurance agency owner, are the chairs.

Issues of justice come under the Judiciary Committee, where victim’s rights in legal proceedings will be a key subject. 

A bill to push “Marsy’s Law” is an effort to get a statewide amendment voted on the November ballot, adding victim’s rights to the state’s circa 1891 constitution. Rep. Joseph Fisher (R-Fort Thomas) chairs the House Judiciary and Sen.
Whitney Westerfield (R-Hopkinsville), the Senate. Already a candidate for attorney general in 2019, Westerfield is a major proponent of the change.

Kentucky can ask citizens to vote yes or no on up to four constitutional amendments in November of even-numbered years. These votes are rare, the last being in 2004 concerning same-sex marriage.

Rep. Ken Imes (R-Murray) has a proposed an amendment to elect the governor and statewide officials in even-numbered years, starting in 2024. He chairs the relevant committee. Were this to pass, those elected in 2019 would have 5-year terms leading up to the change. In the Senate, 11 GOP members are actively backing this idea.

Discussion has centered on judges being appointed by the governor rather than elected as they are now. This, too, would take a constitutional revision. Sen. Joe Bowen (R-Owensboro) heads the Senate panel that considers issues like this.

Roads matter greatly. While the funding comes through the Appropriations Committee, Transportation handles policy not just on highways but airports, ports and related public facilities.

Sen. Ernie Harris (R-Prospect) is the longtime Senate chair, while Rep. Ken Upchurch (R-Monticello) leads House Transportation.

Energy issues, particularly related to the coal economy and the production decline, are led by Sen. Jared Carpenter (R-Berea) and Rep. Jim Gooch (R-Providence).

Some several hundred bills will be proposed. Peer review of medical malpractice lawsuits is promoted in a proposal by Sen. Ralph Alvarado, MD (R-Winchester).

Kentucky has always suffered from having too many counties, 120 in all, one of the nation’s highest totals. Financial circumstances have finally opened conversations of merging counties with a proposed law laying out the process.

Like 2017, this year is shaping up to be a session for the history books, monumental in every respect.

It’s a big bowl of gumbo to handle.

Bob Babbage and Julie Babbage are with the Babbage Cofounder government relations firm.