Politics & Government

Tax bills speed through Senate budget committee

FRANKFORT — The Senate budget committee quickly approved proposals Wednesday that would create a panel to recommend changes to the state's tax system and allow more public scrutiny of bills that alter taxes or spend money.

Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, has said it is likely the full Senate will vote on the measures this week, before lawmakers end their four-day organizing session and adjourn until Feb. 1.

But House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Wednesday he doubts Senate Bill 1, which would create a panel of tax experts to recommend a restructured tax code, would pass the House.

He noted the recommendations of the panel could not be amended by the legislature. The measure also allows for the House Minority Leader, a Republican, to call the bill to the House floor if House Democrats do not allow the bill to be heard.

The panel will not include any legislators that can vote on the potential changes. For the legislature to approve a far-reaching overhaul of how the state generates revenue, legislators should be part of the process, Stumbo said.

"In the end, tax modernization is going to have to be decided by the members of these two chambers," Stumbo said. "I'm not for abdicating the authority or the responsibility, really, of the legislature."

The Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee passed SB 1 by a 16-0 vote with Sen. Walter Blevins Jr, D-Morehead, passing on the vote.

Newly elected Democratic Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester, questioned why Williams did not include legislators on the tax panel.

"I think it will take a collaborative effort," Palmer said of reforming the state's tax system.

The state has looked at tweaking the tax code several times. There have been several different reports and recommendations, but those recommendations have largely sat on a shelf, Palmer said.

But Williams said he believed the panel, dubbed the Council on Revenue Reform, is the best option because it removes politics from overhauling the state tax code. The group, which would report its recommendations for consideration in 2012, would make a dispassionate recommendation, Williams said.

"I am quite frankly tired of task forces," Williams said.

Williams said Beshear and the Democratic-controlled House, where a tax bill must originate, have not taken the lead on the issue. This bill would allow the Senate to push for tax reform.

"We're going to be left out as far as economic development if we don't do something," Williams said.

But Stumbo said some of the state's most successful legislation has been accomplished when there is legislative buy-in from both chambers.

The committee also unanimously approved Senate Bill 5, which would require the legislature to wait 48 hours before voting on a bill that raises taxes or appropriates money.

Rank-and-file members frequently grumble that they are asked to vote on budget and road construction bills in the last hours of a legislative session before they have time to read the bills, which are typically more than 250 pages. The bill also establishes time lines for the executive, legislative and judicial branches to send their budget requests to the legislature.

Some Democratic senators questioned whether SB 5 would make it impossible to file an amendment to the final budget bill if one was needed. Williams said he did not think that the current bill as written would prohibit an amendment.