Larry Dale Keeling: Tough issues plus hesitant lawmakers equal special year

Herald-leader columnistJanuary 27, 2013 

Larry Dale Keeling

FRANKFORT — Once upon a time, back when we were all a bit more naïve and trusting, Kentucky voters approved a constitutional amendment launching the grand experiment of annual General Assembly sessions.

At the time, we believed these yearly get-togethers would end the practice of governors calling lawmakers into special session every time the commonwealth developed a hangnail. With annual sessions, we assumed, such minor afflictions could be bandaged over until lawmakers came up with a permanent cure during their next regularly scheduled visit to the Capitol.

Boy, were we wrong.

Since annual sessions began in 2001, governors have called 11 special (technically "extraordinary") General Assembly sessions. Admittedly, a few of these unscheduled reunions were prompted by crises a bit more serious than a hangnail. As often as not, though, lawmakers created these "crises" by failing to get their job done during regular sessions. The most glaring examples were the years they went home with an "Incomplete" on their budget report cards.

But it's a new world order now. A roadblock has been removed. Peace and cordiality prevail. So, special sessions should be a thing of the past. Right? Well, maybe not. Some things even a new world order can't change.

A peaceful, cordial General Assembly can still be a lethargic, weak-kneed General Assembly hesitant to do anything today it can put off until tomorrow, next week, next month or never. And that's when lawmakers are dealing with "no-brainer" issues. On the toughies, they get slower still. Combine this reluctance to act with the rules for odd-year sessions and the magnitude of the issues confronting lawmakers at the moment, and you realize 2013 could be the "Year of Special Sessions."

Start with the legislative redistricting chore lawmakers bollixed up in 2012. Gov. Steve Beshear asked the General Assembly's leaders to put this painful, divisive task on hold until lawmakers address such issues as tax reform and pension reform. At the moment, it appears his request will be honored.

Any tax reform worthy of the name will generate at least some of the additional revenue the state desperately needs. In odd-year regular General Assembly sessions, revenue-producing measures must be approved by a super-majority — 60 votes in the House, 23 in the Senate. In a special session, the same measures can be approved by a simple majority of each chamber — 51 votes in the House, 20 in the Senate. Thus, tax reform or even a single tax increase (on tobacco products perhaps) designed to fund pension reform would be easier to do in a special session than in the regular session that resumes in February.

The most important piece of pension reform is the commitment to start fully funding the state employees' retirement system at a cost of more than $300 million a year beginning in 2014. The General Assembly's failure to meet that commitment on a regular basis the past two decades and the poor decisions it made in liberalizing benefits during good times had a lot more to do with creating the pension system's current unfunded liability than the fact that it is a "defined benefits" plan rather than a "defined contribution" plan. Without full funding, the system's problem won't be solved no matter what kind of plan the state operates in the future. So, you can't have real pension reform until you have the revenue from real tax reform or a single tax increase.

If legislative leaders honor Beshear's request, only then do they take up redistricting. Of course, they could wait until 2014, but at the risk of hitting some snag that forces them to push back the filing deadline for legislative elections as they did in 2012. Since nothing much of import happens in election-year sessions until incumbents know whether they face challengers, delaying the filing deadline makes a lethargic, weak-kneed General Assembly even more lethargic and weak-kneed.

Conceivably then, handling tax reform, pension reform and redistricting in the proper order could make 2013 a very "special" year for the General Assembly.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at

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