Special session: no pay to squabble

April 24, 2014 

A special session of the Kentucky General Assembly costs taxpayers about $65,000 a day. Since it takes a minimum of five days for a piece of legislation to gain the approval of both legislative chambers and be sent to the governor for his signature, the minimum cost of a productive special session is about $325,000.

While only the governor can call a special session, he or she has no control over how long it will last. A special session's length is determined by how quickly lawmakers get their work done. Or, when there is disagreement and gridlock over desirable outcomes, how quickly they give up and go home without getting anything done.

These facts of special session life provide some important context for the discussion of whether Gov. Steve Beshear should call legislators back to Frankfort to deal with one or more items they left on the table when they adjourned the 2014 regular General Assembly session around midnight April 15.

The prime topic in this discussion is Senate Bill 5, an attempt at thwarting the spread of heroin use in Kentucky. After the House failed to approve the measure before time ran out, Senate President Robert Stivers urged Beshear to call a special session and demand that lawmakers do something about the heroin crisis.

Sheriffs from around the state added their voices to the call for a special session, as have the families of people who have died of heroin overdoses. And understandably so. This crisis is real in Kentucky. And as we noted Wednesday, not getting heroin legislation done was one of the biggest disappointments from this year's regular legislative session.

Another disappointment for some, particularly Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, was the fact the budget lawmakers approved didn't include the bonds the city wanted ($65 million in the initial proposal, $80 million later) for the rebirth of Rupp Arena and new convention facilities. Rupp, too, has been a part of the special session discussion.

No doubt there are other constituencies who would like to see their leftovers added to a special session agenda. But all potential items need to be put into the context of those facts of special session life.

Even in good economic times, calling lawmakers into special session at a cost of $65,000 a day just to continue squabbling for as long as they choose can never be justified because it rewards lawmakers with extra days' salary and expenses for prolonging gridlock.

In an era of revenue shortfalls and budget cuts across the gamut of state programs and services, calling such a session would be inexcusable.

SB 5's journey through the 2014 regular session exposed some differences in philosophy between Senate Republicans and House Democrats on how best to deal with the heroin scourge. On the Rupp project, Senate Republicans never seemed satisfied they were seeing the full financial plan.

When the House and Senate settle their differences over such issues as needle exchanges and homicide prosecutions for dealers whose drugs are involved in overdose deaths, and the chambers agree on a compromise heroin bill they pledge to pass in the minimum of five days, calling a special session could be justified.

If Gray can offer Senate Republicans a financial plan that satisfies them enough to get a Rupp deal done in those same five days, it can be added to the mix as well. The same test should be applied to any other potential item on the agenda.

But no matter how important the issue, rushing into special session before agreements are in place to get in, get the unfinished business done and get out in five days unwisely runs the risk of taxpayer dollars being wasted on a prolonged extension of the regular session disagreements.

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