FRANKFORT — For most of a day in the middle of last week, the "Let's drop the big one now" line from Randy Newman's satirical Political Science kept running through my brain. It popped back into mind Thursday night when Gov. Steve Beshear and a bipartisan House of Representatives joined together to "drop the big one" — as in surprise — that blew up all over Senate President David Williams and members of his Republican caucus.
Instead of engaging the ever-obstructionist Williams in yet another useless, time- and money-consuming conference committee stare-down over the proper way to fill a gap in this year's Medicaid budget, the House passed the Senate version of the fix on an 86-2 vote, trusting in Beshear to excise its unnecessary across-the-board spending cuts by making generous use of his veto pen. Then, the House adjourned sine die and went home, eliminating any possibility of those vetoes being overridden.
Beshear, who hasn't always had the best of relations with lawmakers, honored the trust placed in him on Friday by using his vetoes to restore the legislation to something closely resembling the original House Bill 305 from the regular session, which passed the House 80-19.
House Democrats and House Republicans had Beshear's back throughout the fight with the Senate over spending cuts — never more so than Thursday night. The House could have adjourned until some date after Beshear's veto power expired. And some members of each party wanted to do so, rather than be seen as ceding any of their legislative power.
Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, who led his caucus in putting statesmanship above partisanship on the issue of the spending cuts demanded by Senate Republicans, made a particularly strong plea in this regard.
"I don't think we need to adjourn sine die, Mr. Speaker," Hoover said in a floor speech. "It was wrong two weeks ago (when Senate Republicans ended the regular General Assembly session early). ... It's even more wrong now because we criticized it then."
In the end, though, House members of both parties put their trust in Beshear. His vetoes justified their faith.
For his part, Williams was left to ponder the moral of the ancient Capitol proverb: He who lives by the gavel falling early dies by the gavel falling early.
Since Williams assumed the Senate presidency, lawmakers have gone home from even-year regular sessions three times without agreeing on a two-year budget — 2002, 2004 and 2010. This year, they went home from the regular session without fixing the Medicaid budget.
These failures occurred during the terms of three different governors and have involved two House speakers. Williams is the common denominator linking all four budgetary fiascoes.
Three of these instances led to special legislative sessions. Former Gov. Ernie Fletcher operated state government without an enacted budget from the end of the 2004 regular session until the 2005 General Assembly produced a legislatively enacted spending plan. (A subsequent court decision greatly restricted a governor's ability to repeat that practice.)
In 2002, the special session lasted 10 days (including weekend days, since lawmakers get paid seven days a week when in session) and still produced no budget. Former Gov. Paul Patton then set the precedent Fletcher followed by operating without a budget until one was enacted in 2003.
Last year's special session on the budget ran six days, and this year's Medicaid session ran 11 days for the House. Arguably, the Senate, which adjourned Thursday until April 6, remains in session.
A special session cost about $45,000 a day in 2002. The cost has risen to about $63,500 a day this year. If Williams is as concerned about saving taxpayers' dollars as he claimed while trying to court the Tea Party crowd by insisting on unnecessary spending cuts as part of the Medicaid fix, perhaps he should quit letting his brinkmanship antics force the General Assembly into overtime so often.
Before consigning the regular and special legislative sessions to history, it's worth noting for the record the hole appeared in this year's Medicaid budget because legislative leaders — both Senate Republicans and House Democrats — last year made the faulty assumption that Uncle Sugar would give Kentucky $100 million more in Medicaid funds than we wound up receiving. At the time, Beshear warned lawmakers against making this assumption.
So (blush) did I, referring to it as "delusional in the extreme" in the wake of Democrats losing their U.S. Senate majority in a special election.
But who listens to me?