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'Stop-the-clock' practice ruled unconstitutional

FRANKFORT — A judge ruled Thursday that Kentucky lawmakers must end their controversial practice of stopping the clock in a lawmaking session to conduct business past the constitutional deadline of April 15.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled that a bill Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed earlier this year containing the legislature's six-year road construction plan is invalid because lawmakers failed to give the measure to the governor on time.

Shepherd said the state constitution required the legislature to present the bill to the governor for his consideration before midnight April 15, even if that means they must ”nail the legislation to the governor's door.“

”Because it is undisputed that House Bill 79 was not presented to the governor until April 16, after the legislature's power to conduct legislative business had terminated, this court holds that provisions of House Bill 79 are null and void,“ Shepherd said in a nine-page ruling.

The ruling came after Senate President David Williams challenged the Democratic governor's veto in court. He also questioned Beshear's authority to implement his own road-building plan. The judge will decide that issue at a later date.

In the lawsuit, Williams contended that Beshear failed to veto HB 79 within the legally mandated 10 days after the General Assembly approved the road plan, waiting 11 days instead.

But Beshear, in a countersuit, asked the court to dismiss Williams' case, in part because the road plan passed the legislature after midnight April 16.

It was not immediately clear how Shepherd's ruling would affect other bills the legislature passed after it ”stopped the clock“ just before midnight April 15 to continue business into April 16.

The House and Senate had not finished their work in the final hours of the 60-day lawmaking session, and they ordered the clocks stopped so that midnight would not technically happen until they were ready for it.

They passed about a dozen bills — including the road plan — between midnight and 1 a.m. on April 16th — the 61st day of the session.

Williams, who was in Chicago on Thursday for a legislative conference, said in a statement that Shepherd's order was based on an issue that was not explored by either party before the court.

”We look forward to briefing this issue and believe that the judge will see the error of his finding upon reading of our briefs,“ said Williams, R-Burkesville.

Williams also urged Beshear to ask Shepherd to reconsider his order because ”it is a longstanding practice for governors to accept and act upon bills presented to them on the day after adjournment.“

If Beshear doesn't contest the order, Williams said the governor must treat all similar pieces of legislation as invalid.

”If Judge Shepherd's ruling stands as is, it could lead to a myriad of litigation not desired by the legislative or executive branches,“ he said.

But Beshear spokesman Jay Blanton said the governor is ”pleased that the court has found that the words of the constitution mean what they say, that the legislature can't stop the clock and continue working after the April 15 deadline.“

Blanton said Beshear will be ”reviewing“ other laws approved April 16, but noted that the court order addresses only HB 79.

Besides challenging Beshear's veto of the bill, Williams' lawsuit contended that the Democratic governor could not come up with his own road plan without legislative approval.

Williams said Thursday that ”the governor's determination to spend money without legislative approval is the critical question in this lawsuit.“

Shepherd gave attorneys involved until Aug. 20 to submit their legal arguments on that issue.

House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said he disagreed with Williams' legal challenge and thinks Beshear should have the authority to implement his own plan.

The speaker maintained that other bills the legislature passed in its final moments should not be affected by the judge's order because Beshear did not veto them.

Concerning ”stopping the clock,“ Richards said he opposes the practice and is working on a rule change so that the House will no longer will accept any bill from the Senate after a certain time.