Op-Ed

Keeling: Buzzards feasting on Williams' planks

Senate President David Williams
Senate President David Williams LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

BUZZARDVILLE — Walking out of the Capitol Thursday, I glanced up to see a sky resembling a scene from The Birds — if the avians in the classic Hitchcock film had pumped up on steroids.

My guess is these vultures gathered to feast on all the pieces of legislation doomed to die in the epidemic of gubernatorial ambition now raging in this city once known as Frankfort.

Their first meal will be most of the bills Republican Senate President David Williams rushed through his chamber last week as part of his gubernatorial campaign. Best I can tell, most, if not all, of them went on life support the moment they exited the Senate door.

Some didn't even make it that far. Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo held a wake for Senate Bill 1, with its Kentucky Council on Revenue Reform, before it even came up for a Senate floor vote.

Too bad in a way, because Kentucky desperately needs to rewrite its tax code for both state and local governments, which is what Williams wanted a council dominated by economists to do.

Still, crafting tax reform is a responsibility best shouldered by elected officials who are accountable to Kentucky taxpayers. Without a governor and/or lawmakers having some skin in the game, any proposal submitted to the General Assembly by a panel of experts for an up-or-down vote is doomed to failure. Someone with political influence has to have a personal interest in twisting enough legislative arms to make it happen.

Given the current balance of power, legislative leaders would have to do the arm-twisting, because Gov. Steve Beshear hasn't stroked enough lawmakers' egos to have much influence on the Capitol's third floor.

A wake also awaits Senate Bill 2, a proposal to move state and county employees, judges and legislators from a "defined benefits" pension plan to one with "defined contributions" and to get rid of some of the retirement goodies lawmakers lavished on themselves over the years.

As an ol' curmudgeon, I have to tip my cap to the level of cynicism displayed by Senate Republicans who made a big public show of denying themselves the ability to enhance their retirement benefits by spending as little as three years in a better-paying job elsewhere in government. The statutory language allowing this rip-off originated with them a few years back. Plus they know full well House Democrats will kill this bill and save them from doing the right thing.

Keeping a straight face through such a performance truly is a gift even Oscar-winning actors and actresses must envy.

Interestingly, SB 2 conspicuously avoided tampering with the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System, which is also a "defined benefits" plan. Seems even Republican lawmakers shy away from stirring up the Kentucky Education Association. Maybe that stems from the firestorm former Gov. Ernie Fletcher created when he started tinkering with health insurance benefits a few years back.

But, hey, if I keep writing at length about each of the wakes awaiting various planks of Williams' gubernatorial platform (a verbocity stoked in part by not venting my snippiness in a column for two months), I'll fill up this whole section and deprive assorted others the opportunity to be snippy as well. So, let's go to the CliffsNotes version of the wake predictions:

■ Charter schools/school choice (the latter pandering prompted by the furor over the Jefferson County school assignment plan): Wake.

■ Campaign finance/election reform: Wake, as long as it calls for moving the filing deadline that allows lawmakers to know if they have opposition before voting on anything substantive in even-year sessions.

■ A 48-hour posting of budget legislation before action: Wake, because it would also limit the time the House gets to play with the budget. Besides, it's a sham, since a 48-hour posting requirement for amendments would effectively extend the current practice of not letting any substantive amendments be offered on the floor. A 48-hour budget posting with a 24-hour posting of amendments would be real improvement.

■ Arizona-style immigration legislation, informed consent on abortion, 21st Century Bill of Rights: All wakes.

I may have missed a plank or two in Williams' platform, and his bills won't be the only victims of the epidemic afflicting this General Assembly. Most everything else of note will succumb as well. These are just some early meals for the denizens of Buzzardville, who should be fat and sassy come sine die.

P.S.: It's good to be back.

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