Editorial: Legislative roundup

Senate should protect consumers

We’re 100 percent sure that Senate Republicans never meant to support a St. Louis life insurance company’s rip-off of Kentuckians who bought small policies to cover the costs of burials.

But because a 2012 law did not spell out that its consumer protections applied to all policies, past and future, the Court of Appeals sided with the company and said the law applied only to policies sold after the law’s enactment. Senate and House, by the way, gave the law unanimous approval.

Legislators should not leave Frankfort without clarifying what they meant in 2012. The House did that on Feb. 26 by approving House Bill 408 by an 84-0 vote. On the Senate side, Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, put HB 408 on the committee’s March 17 agenda but it has never come up.

Best guess: The once bipartisan legislation has taken on a partisan hue: Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration dropped the state’s defense of the law shortly before a Supreme Court hearing, giving the appeals panel the final word. Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear criticized that decision and tried unsuccessfully to assume defense of the law.

None of that politics matters to the Kentuckians who lived in low-income neighborhoods targeted by the company’s agents and who just wanted to do the responsible thing by paying their death expenses in advance.

Westerfield and the Senate should rise above partisanship and finish the good work they thought they had completed in 2012.

Two tools better than one

“Another tool in the toolbox” is how several lawmakers described the public-private partnership bill that received Senate approval last week and now awaits the governor’s signature. Several also said the bill is a necessary response to the financial constraints under which local and state governments now must operate.

Oddly, the Senate is uninterested in adding another tool — a local-option sales tax — to the toolbox. House Bill 2, which would let voters decide in November whether to amend the constitution to allow the option, cleared the House 60-31 but has yet to be heard by a Senate committee.

If voters statewide approve such an amendment, local voters would then have to approve the tax which would be for a designated purpose and end at a specified time.

The protections for taxpayers are much weaker in the public-private partnership law which will facilitate privatizing public infrastructure, parks and services without any direct voter participation in the decision although taxpayers could be on the hook indefinitely.

As tools go, the local-option sales tax seems less risky and more democratic.

Lexington Center mystery

Speaking of local taxation, the Bluegrass Hospitality Association unanimously endorsed raising Lexington’s hotel and motel tax from 7 percent to 9.5 percent to pay for an expansion of the Lexington Center, the city’s venue for conventions which are critical to hotel and motel profits and payrolls. Gov. Matt Bevin recommended and the House approved $60 million in state bonds for the project that would eventually be repaid by the increased tax on travelers.

In a surprise move last week, the Senate nixed the $60 million in bonds. Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said Lexington can afford to pay for the new space without state help. Budget committee chair Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, warned that approving the bond issue would necessitate also voting for the increase in Lexington’s hotel (cue scary music) tax (aaahhh) which the House did on March 3.

None of it was very convincing, especially in light of the fact-filled rebuttals offered by Sens. Ralph Alvarado, Alice Forgy Kerr and Reggie Thomas.

The legislature approved a more generous deal for Louisville a few years ago. Bevin had bargained for Lexington to put more money up front than it had proposed. The legislature is admirably holding the line on borrowing for projects in this budget, and the local hotel tax would eventually have repaid the state in full.

What else could it be? Certainly, the Senate’s Republican leaders wouldn’t retaliate against the state’s second-largest city because Mayor Jim Gray is vying to challenge Republican Rand Paul for his seat in the U.S. Senate. No, that would just be petty.