Politics & Government

Legislature dropped tax reform, killed telephone, scholarship bills

FRANKFORT — Legislative leaders on Wednesday praised the work of the General Assembly and said that a special legislative session was not needed this year.

The 30-day session ended at midnight Tuesday.

"I felt better about this session as it concluded than any other session since the 1990 session," said House Speaker Greg Stumbo. In 1990, the House and Senate passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act, a landmark education bill. "We accomplished quite a bit in a short period of time and we did it in a bipartisan manner. We did what Kentuckians expected to us to do, we solved problems."

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, described the session as "fairly successful" in that it "handled several large pieces of legislation."

The Democratic House and the Republican Senate were able to come to an agreement on a fix to the state's pension system on Tuesday that included moving new hires to a 401 (k) hybrid plan and making changes to the tax code that would generate an additional $100 million for the underfunded pension system. The plan has roughly half the money it needs to fund all current and future retirees.

In addition to pension reform, the two chambers passed legislation that would gradually increase the dropout age from 16 to 18, approved a bill that would make it easier for universities to pay for major building projects and passed legislation that would shore up the Lexington police and fire pension system.

Legislative leaders said Wednesday that they did not think there was need for a special legislative session this year.

Only Beshear can call a special legislative session. He has not said if he will call one for 2013. If no special session is called, this will be the first year that the legislature has not had to return to Frankfort in a special session since 2005.

No tax reform

Both House and Senate leaders said Wednesday that there was little will to tackle tax reform this year. Beshear established a task force last summer that came up with dozens of recommendations to tweak the tax code that would generate upwards of $700 million.

Stumbo said only a handful of House members had pushed for tax reform.

"I didn't feel it getting any traction during this session," Stumbo said. "I don't think there was ever any real groundswell of support for moving forward on the broad recommendations of the task force."

Stivers agreed, saying that so far there has been little discussion or consensus on what a tax reform package would look like.

"I think to move forward on that, it's going to require a lot of effort by the administration," Stumbo said.

Scholarship bill dies

House Bill 160, a proposal to use coal severance money to finance scholarships for college juniors and seniors from coal-producing counties, had appeared to be on track to pass late Tuesday but time ran out before the bill was acted upon by the House.

The Senate had approved the bill late Tuesday. The bill was attached to Senate Bill 6, a controversial bill that would have cracked down on heroin trafficking. But time ran out before the House took up the bill.

Stivers said Wednesday that he believed that the bill was passed and delivered to the House chamber in time.

"I understand the House received it but they did not take it up for a concurrence vote," Stivers said.

But Stumbo said that it didn't make it to the House chamber in time.

"I believe it was slow walked down here," Stumbo said. "I think it was intentional." Stivers said that did not occur.

Beshear set up a pilot coal severance scholarship program last year. The program used $4.3 million from coal severance taxes to help students from nine counties in Eastern Kentucky, the majority of whom attend the University of Pikeville.

House Bill 160 would have expanded the program to 34 coal-producing counties, including six in Western Kentucky.

Military voting bill

Senate Bill 1, which was pushed by Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, was the last bill approved. It would allow military voters to receive ballots electronically. But they would still have to return those ballots via the traditional mail.

Grimes had pushed to allow military voters to receive and return ballots via a secured electronic means. Grimes said military voters too often cannot receive and return absentee ballots in time to vote. But Common Cause and many county clerks opposed the measure over concerns about the security of electronic voting.

The compromise bill, passed late Tuesday night, mirrored the Senate's original version that required ballots to be returned by mail.

Grimes said in a statement late Tuesday that Senate Bill 1 was a first step in ensuring that military ballots were counted. "As chief election official, I will continue to work on their behalf to ensure no military or overseas voter ever has to question whether his or her vote counts," Grimes said. "I'm proud that we have started this conversation and taken the first step in this critical legislation."

Telephone bill dies

Senate Bill 88, a telephone deregulation bill that was pushed by AT&T, died in a House committee after being approved in the Senate.

Many legislators said they had concerns that the bill would allow AT&T and other telephone companies to drop land lines. AT&T had argued that it needed SB 88 in order to improve broadband services in Kentucky and that no one would lose access to telephone service. Senate Bill 88 also would have ended the Public Service Commission's regulation of telephone service in Kentucky.