Winners, Losers and Lost Causes From the General Assembly's 2014 Session
By law, the only piece of legislation that the 2014 Kentucky General Assembly had to pass was a two-year state budget. All else, as Will Rogers put it, is applesauce.
And with a session that began with a bang and ended with a whimper, it's what happened in between that House Speaker Greg Stumbo says lawmakers should be "proud" of.
Specifically, that they passed a compromised version of Gov. Steve Beshear's $20.3 billion state budget. House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, however,
took to the editorial page of The Courier-Journal to vent about what he dubbed a "lackluster" session.
But the truth probably lies somewhere between the extremes of "proud" and "lackluster."
Many political observers noted a reluctance among lawmakers to tackle controversial measures—chief among them tax reform—because of the impending November elections that will prove as a test for House Democrats to retain their slim eight-seat majority.
Here's a look at the winners, losers and downright lost causes of the 2014 General Assembly.
The coal industry—A slate of coal-friendly bills easily cleared the legislature, including one that allows coal-fired power plants in the state to regulate their own carbon emission standards at lower-than-federal-levels. Lawmakers also approved a bill that provides a new round of tax incentives for coal and coal-related industries to subsidize their purchase of new equipment.
Children with epilepsy—If you asked lawmakers a year ago if they thought a bill allowing oils made from the cannabis plant to be prescribed to medical patients in the state, you would have been laughed at. But no one laughed as the families of ailing children, many of them suffering from chronic seizures or epilepsy, provided the most compelling testimony of the session.
Indeed, both the House and Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 124, which permits the use of cannabidiol, a compound found in the cannabis plant that a growing body of empirical evidence suggests alleviates the symptoms of some neurological disorders. The bill was signed into law by the governor a week ago, although questions remain about its implementation.
Eastern Kentucky—Lawmakers approved a plan championed by Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers to expand the Mountain Parkway, which they say is needed to attract new business to a region economically devastated by the continued hemorrhaging of jobs in its coal industry. They also signed off on $30 million to install high-speed internet access to the region, coupled with private matching funds, although that figure was half the amount the governor initially requested for the project.
Bourbon industry—The legislature approved tax incentives for the bourbon industry, which has increasingly lobbied for a relaxation in the numerous taxes on one of the Bluegrass State's most iconic exports. That includes House Bill 445, which provides an income tax credit to distilleries on the state and local ad valorum property taxes they are required to pay on bourbon barrels.
The tobacco industry—Tobacco giant Altria was among the biggest spenders in lobbying dollars this session, and it would seem that their money was well spent: Legislation, particularly that filed Rep. Susan Westrom, a Lexington Democrat that would ban smoking in public places and some private businesses, failed to gain traction. Westrom said the reason was a result of lobbying pressure and concerns from rural, tobacco-country legislators about the impact on November elections.
"BeshearCare"—That's the affectionate moniker given by Stumbo to the state's implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which has enrolled more than 400,000 Kentuckians since October. The soon-to-be-enacted biennial state budget assumes over $160 million in savings due to the ACA, also known as Obamacare. (The Senate's version of the budget tacitly assumed these savings, as well, but also tacked on language that amounted to little more than political rhetoric aimed at preventing state money from going toward the federally funded system.)
Women—Although House Health and Welfare Committee Chair Tom Burch, D-Louisville, struck down a spate of anti-abortion access bills promulgated by Senate Republicans, a measure that would expand domestic violence protections for dating couples wasn't brought up for a vote. Republican Rep. Joe Fischer of Fort Thomas attached an anti-abortion amendment to the bill that further stymied its passage. And a provision in House Bill 1, which focused on raising the state's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, included language to mandate pay equity for women, never materialized. Currently, women earn about 76 cents to every dollar earned by a man in Kentucky.
Students—Starting this fall, students enrolled in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System will begin paying fees to cover the lion's share of over $140 million in "agency bonds" that will fund campus improvement projects. On top of that, KCTCS students and higher education students in general will be facing tuition hikes once again, as the budget reduces college funding by 1.5 percent.
Large telephone companies—One instance of a high-paid lobbying effort not being successful in the hallowed halls of the Capitol is in the latest failure of AT&T to deregulate landline service in some cities and permit large telecoms from having to maintain infrastructure and provide basic telephone service. The latest versions of the measure, filed by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, were met with inaction in the House.
Fairness—A pair of bills filed in the House and Senate that would prohibit employers across the state from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation and identification failed to come for floor votes in either chamber.
Ethics reform—In the wake of the controversial ruling in the ethics trial against former lawmaker John Arnold, Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Louisville, introduced an amendment to a Senate Bill that would retool and diversify the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission. The amendment cleared the House, but was not considered in the Senate. But Jenkins said she plans to repurpose the amendment into a bill next session.
However, a sweeping ethics measure by Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, passed both chambers, and would make sexual harassment training mandatory for state lawmakers.
Felons—One of the biggest disappointments for grassroots activists the entire year. House Bill 70, filed by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, would have permitted the automatic restoration of voting rights for some 180,000 Kentucky felons. It was gutted beyond recognition when it got to the Senate by Republican Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer. Although Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul swooped down to Frankfort in support of the bill, it wasn't enough to head off a stalemate between Crenshaw and Thayer, with the former agreeing to include a three-year waiting period, a concept championed by Republicans. But the effort proved to be too little, too late, and the bill wasn't acted upon.
The measure was a perennial issue for Crenshaw, who retires this year after over 20 years in the legislature. Now, Kentucky remains among one of a handful of states that doesn't automatically restore those rights, and sees one-in-four African-American adult males ineligible to cast a ballot because of a felony conviction.
Neither chamber took up measures that would end capital punishment in Kentucky and replace it with life without parole, as well.
Local option sales tax—Championed by the mayors of Lexington and Louisville, a slate of bills designed to implement an amendment to the state constitution permitting voters to decide whether local governments can implement a one percent sales tax to fund capital projects lost steam midway through the session. Many House members unwilling to support a tax increase during an election year. House leaders said the issue will likely have a better chance at passing during the next session.
Opiate addicts—On the final night of the General Assembly session, the Kentucky House was reduced to a last-minute, finish line-dash to get Senate Bill 5, filed by outgoing Southgate Republican Sen. Katie Stine, that would've cracked down on Northern Kentucky burgeoning heroin problem by raising penalties for traffickers and expanding treatment options for addicts.
The bill was heavily amended by the House to address concerns of constitutionality over some of its elements, specifically a provision that allowed drug dealers to be charged with homicide in the event of an overdose death. That didn't sit well with members in both parties. And House Republicans objected to a measure that would provide needle-exchanges for addicts in order to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. By the end of the session, the House simply ran out of time to act on the heavily edited bill, largely in part due to a filibuster by House Republicans on an unrelated bill that essentially burned too much daylight to permit enough time for a vote on the bill.
Republican Senate President Robert Stivers has called for a special session of the General Assembly to address Stine's bill.
Casino gaming—For the umpteenth time, expanded racetrack gaming and casino gambling failed yet again for a host of reasons, chief among them the fear by racetrack officials that legislation promoted by the House didn't do enough to protect the state's thoroughbred industry.
Public-Private Partnerships—A measure filed by East Kentucky Democratic Rep. Leslie Combs to permit private companies to fund and partially control public infrastructure—the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce's cause célèbre this session—passed out of the legislature, but was vetoed by the governor largely on the basis that it contained an amendment filed by Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, prohibiting tolls to be placed on the controversial Brent-Spence Bridge project.
Rupp Arena—A proposed $80 infusion of state funds into a proposed renovation of the fabled Lexington basketball arena was ironically a victim of the assembly's shot-clock running out. The Senate ran out of time on the final day of the session before they could vote on the measure, but the state has committed $1.5 million toward planning purposes to keep the project alive in the meantime.
Teacher's pensions—Although the legislators appropriated money to shore up the ailing Kentucky Employee Retirement System, that fund's counterpart for public school teachers, the Kentucky Teacher's Retirement System, is about $13 billion short of the funding its needs to make investments and pay out teacher's retirement money. The KTRS only received about half of the $1.4 billion it says it needs to prevent it from growing more insolvent.
Toll payees—Alongside Rep. Simpson's above-mentioned anti-toll amendment, a measure filed by Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, providing a tax credit for low income workers who will utilize the currently under-construction Ohio River Bridges Project failed in a House committee hearing, Wayne's measure would also have allowed Louisville's public transportation authority to be exempt from paying tolls on the new bridges, which are slated to be completed over the next few years.
Renewable energy—A bill filed by Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, that would require the state to increase the ratio of renewable energy sources in its energy portfolio failed to gain any traction despite some grassroots support from student activists.
Right-to-work—A bill filed by House Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, that would permit so-called "right-to-work" legislation, makes it more difficult for unions to organize, never had a chance in the Democratically controlled House, At a committee hearing on the issue, labor unions gathered en masse to oppose the bill, which failed handily.
Tax reform—Perhaps the biggest victim to election year paranoia, lawmakers declared prospects for Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson's blue ribbon tax reform commission dead in the water. As a result, the state retains what some economists deem a regressive tax code, meaning Kentucky's wealthiest citizens pay a higher percentage in combined tax rates than middle and lower income residents. Expect the issue to gain serious traction only after November.
Medical marijuana—Advocates for medical marijuana were unable to pass legislation that would legalize the schedule 1 drug for medicinal purposes. But the issue did advance during the session, partly due to the momentum of the cannabis oil bill, which even prompted some Republicans to consider evaluations of marijuana's medical value, as well as a House Health & Welfare hearing, which passed Marzian's bill. It went on to languish in the House, and was never called for a vote.
Pension transparency — A measure filed by Rep. Wayne to provide transparency in how public pension money is invested was defeated for the second time in as many years. His bill would have also prohibited the Kentucky Employee Retirement System from employing so-called "placement agents," which amount to highly paid middle-men who take in millions of dollars in taxpayer money to coordinate the sometimes risky investment of state employee pension money into hedge funds, securities and other financial instruments. Currently, the KERS does not disclose much information about its investments.