Politics & Government

GOP leaders push immigration bill, other priorities through state Senate

Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, listened to Sen. Dan Seum, R-Louisville, during the legislative session Friday in Frankfort. Friday was the final day of the General Assembly's four-day organizational session. Legislators will return Feb. 1.
Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, listened to Sen. Dan Seum, R-Louisville, during the legislative session Friday in Frankfort. Friday was the final day of the General Assembly's four-day organizational session. Legislators will return Feb. 1. AP

FRANKFORT — Republican leaders pushed all but one piece of their wide-ranging agenda through the state Senate this week despite hours of jawing by powerless Democrats on Friday during a marathon lawmaking session.

Most notably, the Senate voted 24-14, largely along party lines, to approve an immigration bill that would make it a state crime for an illegal immigrant to set foot in Kentucky, despite not knowing how much it would cost to implement the bill.

Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, was the sole Democrat to vote for Senate Bill 6. Jones, however, said he had reservations about the cost and unintended consequences of the measure.

The immigration bill was one of eight proposals the Republican-controlled Senate passed Friday, the last day of a four-day organizational session. The General Assembly will resume Feb. 1 and work through March 22.

Other bills the Senate approved include Senate Bill 3, a measure that would allow charter schools and generally permit parents to send children to the closest school, and Senate Bill 1, which would create a panel of tax experts to recommend an overhaul of the state's tax code.

It's unclear how those bills will fare in the Democratic-controlled House.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the House probably will address its own priority bills before voting on Senate bills, which is typical. Stumbo said many of the Senate bills were rushed through the first four days of the organizational session without a thorough financial analysis.

"It is unwise to not take a look at the entire fiscal impact of that massive of a package of bills, and to my knowledge that has not been done," Stumbo said.

One bill the Senate did not take up Friday as expected is an overhaul of the state's pension system. Senate Bill 2 would switch most new state employees to a 401(k)-style plan rather than a traditional pension. The bill passed a Senate committee Thursday, but there was no actuarial analysis of its costs, which typically is done when the state tweaks a pension program, Stumbo said.

Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said the Senate decided to wait on a floor vote until the actuarial analysis is presented in February.

Much of the Senate debate on Friday centered on the immigration and education proposals.

Republican Sen. John Schickel of Union, who sponsored the immigration bill, said state action is needed because federal authorities have failed to enforce federal immigration laws.

"It's designed to put the heat on the feds," Schickel said.

He said the state can't afford to wait on the federal government. Kentuckians already are paying an unknown amount of money to educate illegal immigrants and pay for hospital room visits, he said.

The bill would allow a law enforcement officer to ask about an immigrant's legal status during a "lawful contact." It also creates new crimes for smuggling illegal immigrants for profit and "aiding and abetting" illegal immigrants to come to Kentucky.

Democrats opposed the bill largely because a thorough cost-analysis of what it would take to implement the bill had not been completed. A legislative analysis showed the proposal would have a "significant" impact on the state Department of Corrections' budget but did not provide a specific dollar figure.

Jones, the Pikeville Democrat who voted for the bill, said detaining immigrants would force the state and county governments to spend money that otherwise would go for education or other key programs. The proposal allows illegal immigrants to be charged with trespassing, "but there is no mechanism to make sure that they are deported," he said before ultimately voting to support the bill.

The GOP's education proposal, which would allow charter schools and address school enrollment issues, cleared the Senate in a 21-17 vote.

Several Democratic senators from Jefferson County, where some children are bused to schools far from their homes, argued that decision-making on where children should attend schools should be left to local officials.

Williams, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, countered that the bill would empower parents, not take away local control.

The tax overhaul bill won approval in a 25-13 vote. The nine-member council, which would include economists, an accountant, a lawyer and a property valuation administrator, would give its recommendations to the legislature by 2012. The House and Senate would be required to vote up or down on the council's report without changing it.

Williams said Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and the House, where a tax bill must originate, have failed to act on tax reform despite numerous studies and panels that recommend modernizing the tax code.

"There's no movement at all to change this tax code that everybody agrees needs to be changed," Williams said. "This sets up the structure to do it."

Democrats countered that the panel would be doomed because it does not include lawmakers.

"Only with our input can we devise a plan that will be politically feasible and adoptable by the 138 members of the General Assembly," said Senate Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester. "We need to participate in this process and not abdicate our responsibility to a group of professionals."

Other bills approved by the Senate on Friday include:

■ SB 7, which would put more state government financial data online for public review.

■ SB 10, which would amend the state constitution to protect certain state rights that some think are threatened by the federal government. They include posting of the Ten Commandments in public places and hunting and fishing.

■ SB 11, which would allow the state to pursue civil remedies to recover false claims against the Medicaid system.

■ SB 5, which would require that all budget bills be posted online 48 hours prior to a vote on them.

■ SB 4, which would move the primary from May to August.