The top issues to watch during the 2012 Kentucky General Assembly

jcheves@herald-leader.comDecember 31, 2011 

Carol Mitchell, left, and Frank Goins carried a banner on the rooftop of the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., on Dec. 9, 2011. Gov. Steve Beshear and Lt. Gov.-elect Jerry Abramson were sworn in to office during a full day of festivities on Dec. 13. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

PABLO ALCALA — ©2011

Another meager state budget and another battle over casino gambling are likely during the 2012 General Assembly, which begins Tuesday and ends April 9. Adding drama to the 60-workday session, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear will have to work with the man he just walloped in a nasty re-election campaign, Republican Senate President David Williams.

Here's our list of the top issues to watch.

BUDGET AND TAXES

State budget

Details: The next two-year budget will be the toughest yet, with more cuts to state government likely, state budget director Mary Lassiter has said. During the past three years, Kentucky relied on more than $3 billion in federal stimulus funds to balance its books. That money is gone. There already have been nine rounds of budget cuts under Beshear. Some state agencies have lost 21 percent of their funds, making it hard for them to perform their jobs.

Hurdles: The state in 2012 must pay increased contributions to its underfunded pension system and find a way to pay interest on a federal loan that was used to cover unemployment insurance benefits. Taking that much money off the table undermines ambitions for better schools and social services, and makes it difficult to fund new projects such as improvements to Rupp Arena, with an initial cost of $20 million. Aggravating all of that, the General Assembly has a recent history of failing to pass budgets during regular sessions because of political deadlock.

Tax overhaul

Details: Kentucky's government spends more than it collects in taxes. It makes up the difference with federal aid, borrowing, raiding special funds and one-time accounting tricks. In his second inaugural address, Beshear mentioned "restructuring of our tax system to make it more fair and efficient to meet the needs of our people." He provided no details, but he's expected to return to the subject in coming days when he lays out his budget proposal. Until now, Beshear has not backed substantive changes to the tax code.

Hurdles: The legislature for years has dismissed Republican and Democratic calls for tax reform, in part because lawmakers have differing ideas about what reform looks like. Some want an end to income taxes on individuals and corporations, to be replaced by higher and broader sales taxes. Others want higher taxes on goods and services used by the wealthy and reductions to corporate tax breaks. Keep in mind that 2012 is an election year for all 100 House members and half of the 38 senators, making any vote to raise taxes unattractive.

CRIME

Status offenders

Details: Child advocates are concerned about the large number of underage "status offenders" whom Kentucky incarcerates. A status offense is a wrongful act for juveniles — such as skipping school or running away for home — that isn't a crime for adults. In 2010, there were 1,541 bookings of youths into Kentucky juvenile detention facilities because of status offenses, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Hurdles: It's not widely considered a top priority. The House passed a bill in 2011 that would limit court orders for status offenses, but it didn't get a hearing in the Senate.

Pill mills

Details: There is a resurgence across Kentucky of suspected "pill mills" — pain clinics feeding the state's epidemic of prescription-drug abuse. Police and pharmacists say the demand for pain pills is growing at Kentucky clinics because Florida finally is cracking down on pill mills there, closing the Interstate 75 pill pipeline used by Kentucky addicts. One federal estimate has Kentucky tied for the second-highest percentage of people 12 and older who use pain relievers for non-medical purposes: 6.58 percent, compared to the national level of 4.89 percent.

Hurdles: It's not always easy to distinguish a pill mill from a legitimate pain clinic. Beshear, Attorney General Jack Conway and House Speaker Greg Stumbo say they want to regulate pain clinics, with strict rules for owners and operators to keep out people with histories of wrongdoing. They also will support legislation to make KASPER — a statewide database of dispensed prescriptions — more helpful by requiring its use by all prescribers.

Pseudoephedrine

Details: Pseudoephedrine is a key ingredient in certain cold and allergy medicines — and in illegal, addictive methamphetamines. Kentucky State Police and others in law enforcement want medicines containing pseudoephedrine to require a doctor's prescription, to make it harder to obtain. Aside from the horrors of meth addiction, police say, toxic and explosive meth labs are a danger to everyone around them.

Hurdles: The pharmaceutical industry defeated this measure during the 2011 session, spending nearly $350,000 on lobbying. And lawmakers across the political spectrum are divided on it. Some complain that it's unfair to law-abiding citizens to make a useful medicine harder to get because some addicts abuse it. Several proposed compromises on this measure have gone nowhere.

Domestic violence

Details: Kentucky is one of only a handful of states that doesn't to extend court protection in domestic-violence cases to unmarried partners, unless they live together or have a child together. Among those ineligible to apply for protective orders are college students and other young women who might be threatened by someone they have dated. This issue took on a particular urgency for some lawmakers in 2009 when one of their own, former state Rep. Steve Nunn, shot and killed his ex-fiancée Amanda Ross outside her Lexington home.

Hurdles: The House twice has passed a bill giving domestic-violence protection to unmarried partners, but it has died in the Senate both times.

Penal code reform

Details: The General Assembly in 2011 passed a sweeping overhaul of the state's criminal code, particularly its drug laws. House Bill 463 was expected to cut prison and jail populations, and save an estimated $42 million a year, in part by shifting non-violent drug offenders into addiction-treatment programs and community supervision. Even at the time, sponsors said the law would need to be monitored continually and adjusted.

Hurdles: It's too early to judge the success of changes that took effect just months ago. House Judiciary Chairman John Tilley says "the latest numbers" show 10,000 fewer arrests statewide and a general easing of the strain on state courts. However, some police are asking for changes that would restore their authority to make certain misdemeanor arrests on the spot rather than being limited to issuing citations. Lawmakers say they'll also want to add more "synthetic drugs" to the state's growing list of banned substances.

Child criminals

Details: Hundreds of Kentucky children are the subject of criminal complaints every year, including some ages 5 and 7, according to a Herald-Leader analysis published in October. Their offenses include minor assault and criminal mischief. State Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, said he wants to move children younger than 11 out of the criminal courts and into the social services or mental health systems.

Hurdles: No one has announced opposition to Owens' measure, but Stumbo and Senate Judiciary chairman Tom Jensen have not committed to support it. "We'll take a look at it when it comes to the committee," Jensen said.

GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY

Child abuse records

Details: The state Cabinet for Health and Family Services spent 2011 fighting Kentucky's two largest newspapers to prevent the release of documents regarding children known to the cabinet who were killed or nearly killed by abuse or neglect. A Franklin Circuit Court judge twice has ordered the cabinet to release the records. In November, Beshear also ordered their release. Some redacted documents subsequently were disclosed. But the newspapers and several lawmakers want more information.

Hurdles: Tempers are flaring. Senate Health and Welfare chairwoman Julie Denton is calling for the resignation of the cabinet's secretary, Janie Miller, saying the cabinet has not been honest about lethal failures in the child welfare system. "I'm tired of lies. I'm tired of deception," Denton said at a December hearing. Beshear said he stands behind his appointed leadership at the cabinet.

Public pensions

Details: Kentucky's taxpayer-subsidized public pension funds face a combined unfunded liability of nearly $30 billion. That's among the nation's worst. But Kentucky law keeps information about individual public pensions confidential, so it's unknown who gets how much money and under what circumstances. In states with public pension transparency, serious problems are being uncovered. For example, New York police officers were using second jobs in the private sector to inflate their public retirement benefits.

Hurdles: The legislature decided years ago to conceal public pension information, and it would be unusual for it to reverse itself completely. Public employees enrolled in the pension systems sometimes are defensive about their benefits and might not appreciate seeing them disclosed.

HEALTH AND WELFARE

Staffing levels

Details: Larry Lee, a personal care home resident in Falmouth who was brain-injured and a state ward, wandered away Aug. 4. His body was found nearby a month later. Advocates for the elderly and the mentally ill say Lee's death is evidence of inadequate staff at long-term care facilities in Kentucky. Two lawmakers from the Falmouth area, who joined in the search for Lee, say they want industrywide reforms that would guarantee better care and oversight for residents.

Hurdles: The long-term care industry — especially nursing homes — is a powerful force in Frankfort and includes major campaign donors. They successfully have defeated attempts to require minimal staffing at their facilities, arguing that it would impose a financial hardship.

Background checks

Details: Under state law, nursing home employees who provide direct care to residents must have criminal background checks, but they are not required of others in the homes — such as custodians and kitchen workers. In 2008, a Lexington nursing home hired a maintenance worker after he was arrested for sexual solicitation of a minor and kept him after he was placed on Kentucky's sex offender registry, according to a lawsuit filed against the home.

Hurdles: Again, nursing homes are a powerful lobbying force at the state Capitol, and they tend to thwart regulatory efforts. A bill to require more criminal background checks died during the 2011 session.

Abortion

Details: This is a perennial controversy in Kentucky and all other states. Abortion is legal under the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade. During every legislative session, opponents seek to establish new laws restricting access to abortion in different ways, such as requiring women to view an ultrasound and get face-to-face consultations with doctors at least 24 hours before they can get an abortion.

Hurdles: The Republican-controlled Senate passes anti-abortion bills. The Democratic-led House assigns them to unfriendly committees, where they lack the votes to pass. Toward the end of the sessions, Republican House members unsuccessfully try to force floor votes on the bills.

Drug testing

Details: Lawmakers have reported stories of poor children in their districts being abused or neglected by drug-addicted relatives. Some recommend that recipients of public assistance, such as Medicaid and food stamps, be tested for illegal drugs. Those who test positive would have to enter rehabilitation programs or forfeit their public aid.

Hurdles: A drug-testing bill died in 2011 after lawmakers were told random tests would cost the state an estimated $1.5 million a year. And the state does not have money to pay for addiction treatment for everyone the tests would catch, House Health and Welfare chairman Tom Burch said.

EDUCATION

University of Pikeville

Details: In the final days of 2011, the private University of Pikeville announced that it was in talks to join the state university system. Former Gov. Paul Patton, the university's president, said state funding for Pikeville would lower student tuition and raise education levels deep in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. Stumbo, the House speaker from nearby Prestonsburg, said he liked the idea. Advocates say southeastern Kentucky — which includes some of the poorest U.S. counties — is largely ignored by the state's higher education system. While the state has Eastern Kentucky University, it's paradoxically in Central Kentucky's Madison County, just 27 miles south of the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Hurdles: Kentucky is struggling to pay for the eight public, four-year universities for which it's already responsible. As state funding has dropped steadily, tuition has leapt, faculty wages have stagnated and on-campus needs have gone unmet. Leaders at UK and other state universities worry about adding a ninth mouth to feed in Pikeville.

UK dorms

Details: UK is negotiating with a Memphis-based company to take over its student housing by slowly rebuilding, then managing, all UK dorms. Education Realty Trust could spend as much as $500 million to tear down and rebuild most of UK's housing, with 6,000 beds, and build facilities with an additional 3,000 beds. The company then would control and manage all residential areas of campus.

Hurdles: The legislature must approve the deal.

Dropout age

Details: First lady Jane Beshear and others have urged the legislature to raise Kentucky's school dropout age from 16 to 18. They say it's necessary to prompt more youths to complete their high school educations.

Hurdles: The Republican-led Senate has killed this measure in the past, and it didn't help that it was the chief cause of the Democratic governor's wife. Additionally, some school officials say they can't deal with unruly older students who would be forced by law to stay in class long after they've lost interest.

For-profit colleges

Details: The attorney general and state auditor have criticized Kentucky's loose regulation of private, for-profit colleges, citing as an example the industry's voting control of the state board that oversees it. Lawsuits by students accuse the colleges of charging exorbitant tuition and fees but failing to produce the educations and employment they promised. State Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-Louisville, is pushing for stronger state supervision of for-profit colleges.

Hurdles: For-profit colleges have emerged in Frankfort as a lobbying power. They've spent more than $228,000 on political donations since 2002 and paid $36,000 to lobby the 2011 General Assembly, where they killed Meeks' last bill seeking stronger state supervision.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS

Casino gambling

Details: Beshear ran for governor in 2007 pledging to bring casino gambling to Kentucky. After his 2011 re-election, he said he would renew his effort. The 2012 measure is expected to be a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize gambling beyond its current forms in the state. Putting the question on the November ballot arguably would let lawmakers avoid taking a controversial stand themselves. Beshear says casinos would create hundreds of millions of dollars every year in new state revenue.

Hurdles: The legislature has spent countless hours discussing casino gambling during the past decade without coming close to agreement. The horse racetracks, including Keeneland and Churchill Downs, will throw their political clout behind casinos provided they get the casinos and keep a large slice of the revenue. But some lawmakers — most notably Williams, the Senate president — say they're not inclined to hand the racetracks a lucrative monopoly. It's also unclear whether Kentuckians, who tend to be conservative, would welcome casinos.

State treasurer

Details: Kentucky voters elect a raft of lesser-known statewide officeholders alongside the governor and attorney general. One of those, the state treasurer, essentially keeps the state's checkbook but has little independent authority. A proposed constitutional amendment to abolish that office is being sought by Senate State and Local Government chairman Damon Thayer.

Hurdles: The treasurer was one of the offices created by the 1792 Kentucky Constitution. Many people have questioned the office's value over the years, but no one has gotten rid of it.

STATE GOVERNMENT

Legislative pensions

Details: During the closing hours of the 2005 session, lawmakers once again sweetened their legislative pensions. This time they established a "reciprocity agreement" enabling them to hop into a full-time state job for a few years — in the executive or judicial branches — and qualify for annual pensions of more than $100,000. A number of them subsequently took such jobs and padded their benefits. This has proved embarrassing to some lawmakers when disclosed in news stories, and they say they'll repeal the agreement in 2012.

Hurdles: Lawmakers also said they would repeal it in 2011. They did not.

Lobbyist donations

Details: State law prohibits Frankfort lobbyists from donating money to legislative campaigns but not to gubernatorial campaigns. This also creates a loophole when a legislator runs for governor, as Williams, the Senate president, did in 2011. Campaign-finance reformers say the ban on lobbyist money should cover anyone seeking state office because all officeholders are in a position to award favors.

Hurdles: Reformers have sought a ban on lobbyist donations to gubernatorial campaigns previously without success.

Public Service Commission

Details: In Kentucky, the governor appoints a three-member Public Service Commission to regulate utilities. During the 2011 session, several Eastern Kentucky lawmakers complained about expensive electric bills in their region. They called for an elected seven-member PSC, which they said would be more responsive to public concerns. They failed to pass their PSC bill, but they said they would return to the issue later.

Hurdles: Critics across the political spectrum, including environmentalists and business groups, said an elected PSC could be more easily influenced by utility companies giving large campaign donations.

POLITICS

Redistricting

Details: Using population data from the 2010 census, lawmakers must redraw the lines for 138 state legislative districts and six congression al districts.

Hurdles: Few tasks are more political. Politicians prefer to choose their voters when possible. In the past, the state House and Senate each drew its own districts and largely respected the other's decisions, with each chamber's majority party reaping the benefits. The big partisan fight comes over Kentucky's congressional districts. Adding or subtracting a few counties to Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, for example, could guarantee re-election for incumbent Democrat Ben Chandler or cost him the job, depending on the voter makeup of the counties.

ENVIRONMENT

EPA criticism

Details: Kentucky is a coal-mining state. Many lawmakers have been sponsoring measures criticizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for enforcing clean air and clean water laws, and imposing emissions standards on coal-fired power plants since President Barack Obama's 2008 election. "The EPA don't understand mining," House Natural Resources and Environment chairman Jim Gooch said during the 2011 session. "Get off our backs!" Beshear said of the EPA in a speech to lawmakers, also in 2011.

Hurdles: Federal law trumps state law. The anti-EPA resolutions carry no legal weight and tend to disappear mid-process after their sponsors get to deliver a fiery speech for the television cameras.

State regulations

Details: Two Republican House members from Northern Kentucky, Addia Wuchner and Joseph Fischer, have pre-filed legislation to prohibit state regulations from taking effect without the General Assembly's approval if they would cost the government or a regulated entity more than $500,000. The measure is similar to "model legislation" suggested to lawmakers nationally by the pro-business American Legislative Exchange Council.

Hurdles: Environmentalists say the bill fails to measure the financial benefits of regulations, such as less sickness resulting from air or water pollution. Also, the executive branch currently passes regulations on its own, with a legislative committee being allowed to review and comment on proposed new rules. Beshear, as governor, might not care to relinquish that much of his administration's authority.

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