Politics & Government

With legislative work undone, special session seems like a real possibility

In this 2012 file photo,  retiring Sen. Vernie McGaha, R-Russell Springs, right, spoke with then Kentucky Senate President David Williams during the last day of the 2012 General Assembly.
In this 2012 file photo, retiring Sen. Vernie McGaha, R-Russell Springs, right, spoke with then Kentucky Senate President David Williams during the last day of the 2012 General Assembly. ASSOCIATED PRESS

FRANKFORT — It's likely that the legislature will be heading into a special session after the General Assembly passed a $4.5 billion road plan late Thursday but not the bill that would fund all the state's transportation projects.

The General Assembly approved the more than $4.5 billion road plan but had failed to pass the bill that included the funding for the plan by 11:45 p.m. Thursday, the 60th and final day of the legislative session. Legislators had to end their work by midnight.

The General Assembly also ran out of time before it could vote on a measure that would help law enforcement crack down on "pill mills."

Also, the legislature did not overturn Gov. Steve Beshear's 45 line-item vetoes in a more than $19 billion, two-year budget and did not take up House Bill 260, which would tap coal severance money to fund scholarships for students from coal-producing counties.

The road plan, which was a final sticking point between the Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate this session, was approved by both chambers after 7 p.m. But Senate Republicans did not pass HB 266, the Transportation Cabinet's operating budget. Republicans wanted Beshear to sign HB 267, the road plan, before they approved the operating budget so Beshear could not line-item veto the more than 1,000 road and bridge projects in the plan.

If Beshear took out projects in HB 266, the operating budget for the Transportation Cabinet would not be balanced.

Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for Beshear, said the governor did not want to sign the road plan without the funding mechanism that went with it. "We have to have the funding," she said.

The state road plan allocates $4.5 billion for Kentucky highways and bridges during the next three fiscal years. It includes money to widen Leestown Road and advance the Newtown Pike extension in Lexington.

The measure was approved unanimously by the Senate earlier Thursday. But the bill — always contentious — met with resistance in the 100-member House. Some House Republicans objected because they said several road projects were tucked into the bill at the last minute by legislative leaders. The conference committee that was supposed to iron out differences between the original House and Senate plans never met, and under legislative rules, no projects were supposed to be added at this stage, said House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown.

"The way we conduct public policy is important," Hoover said in a floor speech. "The bottom line is, about three people have controlled what you see in this road plan."

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, later said the road plan was negotiated under a general suspension of legislative rules, which meant more projects were allowed to be added. Those projects were supposed to be in the plan from the start but were omitted inadvertently, Stumbo said.

The plan authorizes two new bridges over the Ohio River in Louisville. Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, protested because he said the bill's language endorses tolls eventually being placed on three of the city's four bridges to pay for the projects.

Tolls are a "regressive tax" on poor and working-class people who must commute over the bridges daily, Wayne said. He suggested instead a higher gas tax or a reallocation of the road fund to favor urban areas. Both proposals drew scattered boos from the House chamber.

Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, who helped draft the road plan, responded to Wayne by saying the legislature did not have the responsibility for establishing a financing method for the bridges. It assigned that job to the Louisville and Southern Indiana Bridges Authority, Overly said.

Later, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet issued a statement saying that it has not been decided whether tolls would be charged on the existing Sherman Minton Bridge in Louisville to pay for new construction. "That is a decision that will be made by a future generation of policy makers," the cabinet said. The two new bridges will have tolls, the cabinet said.

The House approved the road plan 77-16.

Beshear vetoed many sections of the two-year budget bill that would restrict how he can balance the state's books, including provisions that would require any surplus money to be deposited in the state's "rainy day" fund. Beshear also vetoed key projects placed in the budget by legislators — such as $1 million for the Allen County Industrial Authority, $150,000 for the International Mystery Writers' Festival in Owensboro and $100,000 for Actors Theatre of Louisville. Beshear said he vetoed the projects because the legislature did not provide funding for the earmarks.

Beshear explained his vetoes to the House Democratic caucus in a closed-door meeting Thursday afternoon. After he left, the caucus continued to meet behind closed doors for more than an hour. But Stumbo said there ultimately was not enough support to override any of Beshear's vetoes.

It takes both chambers to override gubernatorial vetoes. Once House Democrats decided not to override the vetoes, it was pointless for the Republican Senate to try to override the vetoes.

Leaders in both chambers said earlier Thursday that they thought they had an agreement on HB 4, which would help crack down on the overprescription of pain medications. But the Senate had failed to vote on the compromise bill by 11:30 p.m., making it almost impossible for the bill to pass both chambers.

The bill would have moved the Kentucky All Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting system, or KASPER, to Attorney General Jack Conway's office. But the compromise bill deleted a provision that would require all physicians to pay $50 to use the KASPER system. That provision was taken out after the Kentucky Medical Association objected. HB 4 also would limit the ownership of pain clinics to physicians.

Stumbo predicted that if HB 4 was signed into law, the number of rogue doctors overprescribing pain medications and the number of "pill mills," or doctor's offices set up solely to prescribe pills, would plummet.

"Once it's adopted, we're going to see this problem immediately start to resolve itself," Stumbo said. "These people who are engaged in this particular type of endeavor will leave. My only regret is that we didn't put their sorry butts in jail before they left the state."