Politics & Government

2011 General Assembly Guide

Lawmakers will find a buffet of bills beckoning them when the Kentucky General Assembly reconvenes on Tuesday. Here's a sampling of the top issues legislators are expected to tackle before adjourning for the year on March 22.

Crime

Penal code

Details: A task force is recommending big changes to the criminal sentencing laws in order to reduce the prison population and save money. The proposal, to be filed as a bill in February, would require probation rather than prison for drug possession, reduce penalties for low-volume drug trafficking, steer addicts into mandatory treatment, and require "graduated penalties" for probation and parole violators so that the probation/parole is less frequently revoked and violators aren't sent to prison for technical offenses.

Hurdles: Police and prosecutors argue that reducing penalties too much could make it difficult to stop drug trafficking in communities. Lawmakers are loathe to appear soft on crime.

Bill: Not yet filed

Methamphetamine

Details: In the latest effort to combat methamphetamine, Republican Sen. Tom Jensen of London and Democratic Rep. Linda Belcher of Shepherdsville have filed bills that would require a doctor's prescription for cold medicines containing some of meth's key ingredients, including ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

Hurdles: Critics, including the pharmaceutical industry, say this would make it too expensive for many Kentuckians to get effective cold medicines because they would need to go through a doctor.

Bills: SB 45, HB 15

Synthetic drugs

Details: Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, wants the state to outlaw a type of synthetic drug that mimics the effects of methamphetamine or cocaine. The bill would make manufacturing or trafficking methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) a Class A misdemeanor. Those arrested for possession could face a Class B misdemeanor. MDPV, sometimes called red dove or zoom, is the latest in a string of synthetic drugs designed to mimic common illegal drugs.

Hurdles: The bill mirrors legislation that passed last year that outlaws Salvia divinorum and K2, which mimic the effects of marijuana.

Bill: HB 121

Illegal immigration

Details: Senate Republicans support a bill by Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, that would allow the jailing of illegal immigrants on a state trespassing charge. Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Cherry, D-Princeton, and Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, are proposing separate bills to penalize certain employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Hurdles: Most lawmakers say they want to pass something tough on immigration. But they disagree on the best approach, which could doom everyone's bills if each party or chamber insists on having its own way.

Bills: SB 6, HB 3, HB 111


Health and welfare

Adult Abuse Registry

Details: Proposals by Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, D-Lexington, and Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, would require the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to create a registry listing each person against whom a charge of abuse, neglect or exploitation of an adult has been substantiated by the cabinet. There already is a nurse abuse registry, but nothing for other staff members who have been charged with abuse.

Hurdles: Similar legislation has had an uphill battle in previous legislative sessions. One financial analysis estimated that it would cost $3.2 million annually to create the registry and pay for staff to input data. Others have said the cost could be minimal.

Bills: HB 101 and SB 38

Nursing home deaths

Details: Staff members at long-term care facilities and hospices would be required to report all deaths to the county coroner within 24 hours under a proposal by Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville. It also requires coroners to involve police or prosecutors if they suspect abuse or neglect. The bill is intended to give coroners discretion in choosing which deaths need further review by other officials.

Hurdles: Some coroners and the state Medical Examiner's office are concerned the bill would overburden their financially strapped offices.

Bill: HB 69

Home health protections

Details: Personal care agencies would have to conduct annual criminal background checks on their employees under bills pushed by Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, and Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Louisville. Home health agencies also would be prohibited from hiring a person on an adult abuse registry to provide direct care.

Hurdles: There are questions about how much the proposals would cost state government and the home health industry. Sponsors believe the cost would be minimal.

Bills: HB 52 and SB 23

Smoking ban

Details: The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and all major state health organizations have publicly endorsed a proposal by Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, to ban smoking in public places and places of employment. The Chamber said costs related to Kentucky's high rate of smoking — in medical care and lost production — make the state less competitive for employers.

Hurdles: Many House and Senate leaders support the smoking ban on bipartisan terms. But many rank-and-file members either consider it an attack on the state's tobacco crop or believe it's an issue best addressed locally.

Bill: HB 193

Infection control

Details: Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, is sponsoring a bill that would require all Kentucky hospitals to report hospital-acquired infections to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. The proposal would also require hospitals to establish infection-prevention programs.

Hurdles: The measure is opposed by the Kentucky Hospital Association and it's not clear how much it would cost to implement an infection-tracking system.

Bill: SB 72


Taxes and budget

Medicaid budget

Details: Gov. Steve Beshear says payments to health care providers who see Medicaid patients would fall by 30 percent if the General Assembly does not approve his proposal to balance the program's mammoth budget. The plan would shift $166.5 million from next year's Medicaid budget to the current year. To make up the resulting shortfall in fiscal year 2012, Beshear said the state would expand the use of private contractors to provide Medicaid services.

Hurdles: Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said the Democratic governor, whom Williams hopes to challenge in this year's general election for governor, first must fulfill his pledge from last year to cut costs in Medicaid by $125.5 million.

Bill: Not yet filed

Tax overhaul

Details: Under a proposal by Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, a seven-member council of economists and tax experts would make recommendations to change Kentucky's tax system. The council's recommendations would be ready by January 2012. No amendments to the proposal would be allowed. The Senate has already approved the measure.

Hurdles: House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has expressed reservations about the proposal, noting that no legislators would be voting members of the council, making it difficult to get legislative buy-in.

Bill: SB 1

Waiting period

Details: The legislature would have to wait 48 hours before voting on appropriations and revenue bills under a bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Leeper, I-Paducah. Legislators have long complained that they often must vote on the state's two-year budget without having ample time to review the document. The Senate has already passed the measure.

Hurdles: There have been questions about whether the rule would hamper the ability to alter or amend bills that contain technical or other errors.

Bill: SB 5


Education

Dropout age

Details: The school dropout age for Kentucky children would rise gradually from 16 to 18 under bills by Democratic Reps. Jeff Greer of Brandenburg and Reginald Meeks of Louisville. About 6,000 Kentucky students quit school each year without graduating.

Hurdles: Raising the dropout age has been proposed several times, including last year, but has never passed. Concerns include the cost of educating the students — roughly estimated at about $15 million annually — and how schools would keep the students stimulated and interested in education.

Bills: HB 75, HB 225

Charter schools

Details: Charter schools, which operate without traditional education regulations, would be authorized in Kentucky under bills by state Rep. Brad Montel, R-Shelbyville, and Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville. Supporters tout charter schools as alternatives for students now struggling in traditional public schools with low test scores and poor graduation rates. Williams' bill also would allow parents to send their children to the public school closest to their home in some cases.

Hurdles: Educators statewide remain generally cool to charter schools. Although the Republican-controlled Senate has already approved a charter schools bill this year, the measure is not expected to get a hearing in the House.

Bills: SB 3, HB 103


State workers

Furloughs

Details: Democratic Reps. John Will Stacy of West Liberty and Rick Nelson of Middlesboro are directing Gov. Steve Beshear to cancel the three remaining furlough days for state workers. Three furlough days already have occurred.

Hurdles: The legislature gave Beshear permission last year to impose furloughs. Now House leaders have changed their minds, but they are not identifying from where the millions of dollars in projected savings from furloughs should be cut in the state budget.

Bills: HJR 10, HJR 11

State pensions

Details: Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, is sponsoring a bill to close the state's defined-benefits pension system to future workers and instead require them to open defined-contributions accounts, like 401(k) plans. That puts the burden on workers to save enough money for their retirement.

Hurdles: Beshear and House Democrats say this isn't an urgent issue because less-drastic changes to the pension system in 2008 adequately addressed the problems posed by unfunded liabilities.

Bill: SB 2


Constitution

Federal government

Details: The Senate already has approved and sent to the House a change to the Kentucky Constitution dubbed the "21st Century Bill of Rights" and sponsored by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown. Proponents say it would protect the state from federal intrusion on issues such as coal mining, posting of the Ten Commandments, abortion, expanded gambling, hunting and guns. A constitutional amendment proposed in the House by Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, also would protect hunting and fishing rights, although no one has suggested those rights are endangered.

Hurdles: The Senate's amendment likely contains too many items for the Democratic-led House to accept. It's also unlikely that Republican leaders in the Senate will settle for a House bill that addresses only hunting and fishing.

Bills: SB 10, HB 1

Lawmakers

Details: Rep. Ron Crimm, R-Louisville, has filed a constitutional amendment to increase the terms of state representatives from two to four years and state senators from four to six years.

Hurdles: Amendments to increase legislators' terms of office have popped up in previous sessions but never gained much attention in either the House or Senate.

Bill: HB 92

Felon Voting Rights

Details: Non-violent felons would have their voting rights automatically restored after completing their sentences and probation under a proposed amendment sponsored by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington.

Hurdles: The House has approved the measure in previous sessions but it has never cleared a Senate committee. The forecast remains the same.

Bill: HB 70

Judge-executives

Details: Newly elected Fayette County Judge-Executive Jon Larson supports a bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, that would do away with the office in Fayette and Jefferson counties. Farmer and Larson say the office is not necessary in merged governments.

Hurdles: Jefferson County Judge-Executive Bryan Mathews opposes the bill, as does the Kentucky County Judge-Executive Association. Senate President David Williams and House Speaker Greg Stumbo have been mum on the issue.

Bill: HB 45


Government transparency

Government spending

Details: Kentucky's spending reports would be put online permanently under a bill the Senate approved earlier this year. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, would require the state's three branches of government to make public all spending by placing it on an online searchable database. All three branches now post most spending information, but Thayer said the law should require transparency.

Hurdles: The proposal is expected to be accepted in the House, but there could be a squabble over who gets credit for pushing it.

Bill: SB 7

Travel expenses

Details: Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, is pushing a bill to require the Legislative Research Commission to post on the Internet lawmakers' salary and travel expense records. Currently, these records are accessible only through a Kentucky Open Records Act request.

Hurdles: The GOP-controlled State and Local Government Committee may not want to give Stein, who routinely clashes with Senate leaders, any legislative victory.

Bill: SB 52


Elections

Primary elections

Details: Senate freshman Jared Carpenter, R-Berea, is sponsoring a bill that would push back primary elections from May to August and filing deadlines from January to April. Called the "Public Officials Accountability Act of 2011," it also prohibits a lawmaker or a candidate for the General Assembly from accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists.

Hurdles: The House will likely be reluctant to move the January filing deadline, which allows lawmakers to know if they have opposition before voting on controversial measures in even-year sessions.

Bill: SB 4.

Public financing

Details: Judicial campaigns would receive public financing under a bill pushed by Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville. The money would come from a requirement that members of the Kentucky Bar Association submit an annual amount not to exceed $25.

Hurdles: Senate leaders have not looked favorably on public financing bills.

Bill: HB 21


Business

Payday loans

Details: Interest rates charged by payday lending companies would be capped at 36 percent under a bill filed by state Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville. A state database established in 2009 shows at least 83 percent of payday lending revenue was generated by borrowers with five or more transactions in 2010, Owens said. Seventeen states have such a law.

Hurdles: Representatives of the payday lending industry, some of whom have contributed heavily to state officeholders, have opposed an interest-rate cap. Owens has filed this legislation in two previous legislative sessions, which last year had 21 co-sponsors but was not given a hearing in committee.

Bill: HB 182

Online business portal

Details: Businesses in Kentucky might find it easier to interact with state government under a bill the Senate unanimously approved Jan. 7. The bill, sponsored by Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, will set up a "one-stop electronic state business portal" in the secretary of state's office to ease interaction among businesses and government agencies.

Hurdles: Legislation that might help create jobs is generally viewed favorably by lawmakers of all parties.

Bill: SB 8


Environment

Water pollution

Details: Environmentalists favor a resolution sponsored by Rep. Jim Glenn, D-Owensboro, that would require public water systems to monitor levels of hexavalent chromium, an industrial chemical that can cause cancer.

Hurdles: This effort hasn't gotten much attention.

Bill: HJR 27

Nuclear power

Details: Sen. Bob Leeper, I-Paducah, is again pushing a bill to eliminate the state prohibition on construction of nuclear power plants in Kentucky. Supporters say nuclear power could be useful if new rules emerge curbing the use of fossil fuels, like coal and oil, which produce greenhouse gases. Environmentalists say we still don't know how to dispose of nuclear wastes with a half-life of 24,000 years.

Hurdles: The idea of a nearby nuclear power plant still worries some people. Also, the fossil fuel industries tend to view nuclear energy as a possible competitor, and they have far more influence in Frankfort.

Bill: SB 34

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