Over the course of the past few weeks, a great deal of attention has been paid to the Kentucky General Assembly, for once, passing a two-year budget in a timely fashion.
As one of the conference committee members, I participated in the days of negotiation, including the one marathon all-night session. There were times that I felt sure the process would become stymied, but am grateful that we persevered and were able to find agreement. The results of that work will provide real-life effects to Kentuckians, including much-needed pay raises for our public school teachers.
However, I'm afraid the vast majority of accolades are coming from legislators slapping each other on the back. The citizens of this commonwealth realize that passing a budget is the singular duty we have, so, accomplishing this great feat means, in reality, we have successfully met the most minimum of reasonable standards.
The unadorned truth is this session was lackluster at best. In my 18 years serving as state representative, never before have I seen a session where political fear thrived more than this previous one. With nearly every major piece of legislation, it became obvious that it would not pass because of concerns of how it might affect some legislators in their upcoming elections.
It is to be expected that political considerations are factors in any legislative body. However, when they prevent doing business to advance our commonwealth, it is time to speak up and say enough is enough.
Perhaps there is no greater example of this than comprehensive tax reform. In 2012, Gov. Steve Beshear appointed a blue-ribbon task force to study the issue. After holding numerous public meetings, engaging interested parties and publishing their recommendations, the General Assembly received that report in December 2012. Yet the report spent this entire session gathering dust on a shelf.
While I may not have agreed with all of the suggestions, the issue is beyond ripe for debate. How can we, in good conscience, sit in our current economic climate and not even begin the discussion, while other states around us take proactive steps to retain and recruit jobs?
The 2014 General Assembly will be remembered as one of missed opportunities.
Despite 82 members initially voting for the bill, we failed to override the governor's veto of House Bill 407 which would have allowed the use of public-private partnerships, a job-creating bill that was the No. 1 priority of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. We failed to pass Senate Bill 99, which would have further deregulated telephone services, allowing companies to expand high-speed broadband services throughout the state, a move that would have greatly aided our efforts to attract high-tech jobs to Kentucky.
We failed to pass House Bill 399, which would have allowed citizens of local communities to have greater control in their own destiny by voting at the election booth on a local option sales tax for a specific purpose.
Despite several floor amendments dealing with the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky, we were unable to have any discussion on the issue of what our state's financial role and burden will be in this massive expansion of government services. Finally, but certainly not least, we failed to address the ever-growing problem of heroin when Senate Bill 5, which passed the Senate and was received in the House by Jan. 17, was not called to the House floor for almost three months and then not until the 11th hour of the final night.
No matter what side of the issue they are on, I frequently hear people begging us to consider such topics as expanded gambling, medical review panels, a statewide smoking ban, becoming a right-to-work state and repealing prevailing wage. I understand that there are legislators with differing viewpoints on these issues. However, if we are not willing to give the most pressing matters of the day fair and honest debate then, frankly, why are we even here?
The vast majority of legislators are true public servants. They take the job seriously and sacrifice much time away from families and careers to come to Frankfort with the intent to make Kentucky a better place. Unfortunately, until like-minded individuals take control of the House and we have leadership willing to put our people before politics, I'm afraid it will continue to be (lack of) business as usual.