FRANKFORT — The Kentucky House and Senate each passed their top-priority bills Thursday — a raise in the minimum wage and a curb on the governor's regulatory power, respectively — but the bills face doubtful prospects as they cross to opposite chambers controlled by opposing parties.
The Democratic-led House voted 54 to 44 to approve House Bill 1, which gradually would increase the $7.25 minimum wage in Kentucky to $8.10 in July, $9.15 in July 2015 and $10.10 in July 2016.
Republicans warned during a lengthy debate that raising wages would force employers to eliminate tens of thousands of jobs across the state, particularly those held by young and inexperienced workers, and it would saddle schools and state and local governments with millions of dollars in new payroll costs.
"We would all love to do this, but I live in a practical world. The reality is, this is bad for business," said Rep. John "Bam" Carney, R-Campbellsville.
In a floor speech, House Speaker Greg Stumbo dismissed the GOP's arguments. Stumbo said the minimum wage has been raised in the past without the economic calamity predicted by opponents, including wealthy Kentucky business owners who this year have cried hardship to lawmakers from their Florida vacation homes.
Stumbo paraphrased the Bible's Book of Matthew, telling his colleagues, "The way you treat the least of my people is the way you treat me." An hourly wage floor of $10.10 would benefit 400,000 Kentuckians, two-thirds of them working women, he said.
"Send a message to lower-income, working-class families that your work does count," said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, "That when you get up and go to work every day and you work hard, you ought to be paid something you can live off of. It's called a living wage."
The House also voted 57 to 40 for HB 191, which would raise the minimum wage for tipped employees, such as restaurant table workers. The wage gradually would rise from $2.13 an hour to 70 percent of the hourly minimum wage, starting with an increase to $3 in July.
Shortly before the House vote, the Republican-led Senate approved Senate Bill 1 along party lines in a 24 to 14 vote.
The bill would put a constitutional amendment on November's ballot to ask voters if they support the General Assembly establishing "a legislative process" to void administrative regulations enacted by the governor and other executive agencies.
There is no proposed process at present. Sponsors say it could involve creating a special committee of lawmakers or allowing the House and Senate to vote as committees of the whole when not in session.
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Stumbo both have said the amendment is unnecessary, although Stumbo said Thursday he's open to a law more strictly requiring legislative approval for regulations. If the legislature approves SB 1, the law would forbid the governor from vetoing a constitutional amendment approved by the General Assembly.
Senate Republicans argued that SB 1 is needed to balance powers between the legislative and executive branches of government. But Democratic senators said it would create "a fourth branch of government" that could put control of administrative regulations in the hands of as few as two people.
The governor and executive agencies issue about 700 regulations a year to implement various laws approved by the legislature. State government has about 4,000 regulations, which govern every facet of the executive bureaucracy, from mining regulations to Medicaid.
Under current law, the legislature's Administrative Regulations Review Subcommittee reviews most of those regulations but has no power to actually stop them from taking effect. The legislature only can stop them by approving new laws the next time they come into session.
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, noted during the Senate debate that Beshear ignored the wishes of a legislative panel last year and implemented regulations dealing with science education standards and a health benefit exchange created by the federal Affordable Care Act.
Senate Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, said lawmakers can file bills at any time if they have concerns about the education standards or how Beshear implemented the federal health care law.