Franklin County

Low expectations for upcoming legislative session

FRANKFORT — Expectations for a productive state lawmaking session have hit bottom as the 2011 General Assembly prepares to convene on Tuesday.

"In all the years I've been around the Capitol, I can't recall people expecting so little from a legislative session," said Democrat Julian Carroll of Frankfort, a former governor whose tenure in the Capitol started in 1962 as a state representative and continues as a state senator since 2005.

The reason for Carroll's gloomy projection: Republican Senate President David Williams wants to replace Democrat Steve Beshear as governor.

Williams, who has held the top spot in the Senate since 2000, and Beshear, who is seeking re-election this year to another four-year term, have consistently been at odds.

Beshear has tried unsuccessfully in recent years to gain a Democratic majority in the Senate and topple Williams, who dismisses Beshear as a "caretaker governor."

"It's Williams who controls the flow of all legislation in the session," Carroll said. "He will move what he thinks will help his campaign and stop whatever he thinks will hurt it."

Carroll said there will be no distinction between the actions Williams takes as president of the Senate and those he takes as candidate for governor.

"Every vote and every lack of a vote he makes, every speech he makes, every move he makes, every hiccup he makes, will be viewed through the lens of what this means for his campaign," he said.

Williams dismissed Carroll as "arcane" and "irrelevant" and pledged to "do my best to make this a productive session."

"But just because I'm running for governor does not mean I will not speak out on how I feel about various issues," he said.

Williams and the other 22 Republicans in the Senate have compiled an expansive agenda for the session, including overhauling the state's tax code, allowing police to enforce federal immigration law, tweaking state government pensions for new employees and changing the state's campaign laws to move primary elections to elect party nominees from May to August.

Beshear said he also hopes that the session will be productive, and he promised to approach it as he has every other session since taking office.

"I will sit down with the leaders of both parties and in both houses and try to bring folks together and try to find common ground on some issues that will try to move this state forward," Beshear said.

"I understand that there's going to be a governor's race, but in my mind, it doesn't have to start until this session is over," he said. "I really don't think the people of the commonwealth want the legislature to come up here and just get involved in partisan bickering."

Williams dismissed Beshear's claim, saying the governor has "been in full-time campaign mode for several years, trying desperately to take me out of office but has failed."

Beshear said he still is working on his agenda but will emphasize upping the school dropout age from 16 to 18 and working on the state's financially strapped Medicaid budget.

Williams has said he plans to push the Republican's agenda through the Senate in the opening days of the session so that the Democratic-controlled House will have plenty of time to act on the proposals.

Carroll said that move "is a deceptive measure to get Williams votes for governor."

"It will be a way for Williams to try to paint Beshear as a do-nothing, caretaker governor," he said.

This is not the first time a legislative leader in Kentucky has tried to oust a governor seeking re-election.

In 2007, then-House Speaker Jody Richards of Bowling Green sought the Democratic nomination for governor while Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher was running for re-election.

Richards finished a distant fourth in the primary, which Beshear won on his way to defeating Fletcher in the general election.

"It wasn't what I would call a very productive session, but I think that mostly was because we didn't have a lot of money to work with," Richards said.

Senate Minority Leader Ed Worley, a Democrat from Richmond who decided not to seek re-election this year and will not return for the 2011 legislative session, said he doesn't know whether Williams alone can determine whether the session will be productive or not.

"It's important for all legislators to try to come away with a session that has helped the state," he said.

Worley said he foresees "an attempt to present a more conservative agenda by both chambers" to appeal to voters in 2011 and 2012.

For example, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, is pushing a constitutional amendment to protect the rights of people in Kentucky who hunt and fish. The move is seen by some as a way to help Democratic state representatives in their elections next year on a ticket with Democratic President Barack Obama, who is not popular in the state.

Stumbo expressed caution in writing off the legislative session entirely.

"I don't know how much this session will produce, but it can be worthwhile by focusing attention and study on issues for the 2012 session," he said.

For example, Stumbo said he would like to see changes in the state tax code. He mentioned possible repeal of the corporate income tax for businesses and implementation of an earned income tax credit for the poor.

Stumbo said he hopes that the House, which supports the governor, can stay out of political battles between Beshear and Williams, "though I know there will be some."

"Still, I think we can get some good things done," he said.

The 30-workday session is expected to cost $63,689 a day, or more than $3.4 million.

Lawmakers will be paid for the four days they work this week and for every day, including weekends and holidays, after they start the second part of the session on Feb. 1. The session is scheduled to end March 22.