Op-Ed

Larry Dale Keeling: Legislative hive buzzing, but don't expect much honey

FRANKFORT — Someone dropping in on the General Assembly session for a day last week might have mistaken the activity they witnessed for productivity.

Would that it were so. Productivity, true productivity, puts statutes on the books that push Kentucky a limping step or two forward on some front.

But approaching hump day for the 2011 session, true productivity remains a stranger in the halls of the Capitol. And the betting is heavy it will remain that way.

Oh, sure, House and Senate committees keep spewing legislation onto the floors of their respective chambers. And the two chambers keep sending bills east and west along the Capitol's third floor. But few are expected to survive long once their journey is complete. Casualties happen in the partisan tug-of-war between House and Senate leaders. They can happen even when the two chambers' leaders are pulling in tandem.

Senate Bill 45 is well on the way to becoming such a victim. SB 45 and an identical measure filed in the House would make pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in popular over-the-counter allergy medications, a prescription drug because it is also an essential precursor in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Both Senate President David Williams and House Speaker Greg Stumbo support this change. However, they're in the minority.

SB 45 cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee Feb. 3 and was posted for passage in the Senate's Feb. 4 orders of the day. Didn't happen. Still hasn't happened.

SB 45 just sits there in the orders day after day because it remains several votes shy of certain passage. Best information I received last week had the Republican caucus close to evenly split, with both sides holding firm. Less than a handful of Democrats support the bill.

And even Williams, who normally keeps the Senate firmly under his thumb, has been unable to change the numbers, which has to be galling to a gubernatorial candidate wanting to use this session to show off his leadership skills.

Obviously, with Williams and Stumbo on the same side and the Senate Republicans divided, this isn't a partisan issue. Nor does it fall along urban-rural lines.

It's more a division between lawmakers from areas where some of the horror stories of meth manufacturing have occurred — a toddler drinking drain cleaner left over from meth production or children being burned in a fire caused by the explosion of a meth lab — and legislators from areas that have yet to experience such tragedies.

Yet may be the operative word, given the spread of meth production across the state. But for now, lawmakers whose areas have avoided tragedies have the numbers to kill SB 45 and its companion House bill.

They will have plenty of company in this year's list of legislative obituaries. Most of the Senate Republican agenda, also known as Williams' gubernatorial campaign platform, will join them.

For instance, House Democrats' plan for Senate Bill 6, the Arizona-style attempt to rid Kentucky of illegal aliens, appears to be talking it to death in a succession of committee hearings. A House alternative requiring government contractors to verify the immigration status of their workers can expect to meet the same ultimate fate as SB 6, with or without the dignity of a Senate discussion.

Gov. Steve Beshear's support for raising the school dropout age dooms that proposal in a Senate led by his leading rival in this year's gubernatorial race.

Beshear's revision of the Medicaid budget will also run into trouble in the upper chamber, where Republicans are expected to demand more immediate savings instead of a transfer of funds from next fiscal year to the current. Of course, the potential problem with such a course for Williams is that Beshear might generate those savings by cutting reimbursements to health care providers — generally a Republican-leaning group — while pointing the finger at Williams.

So, if you drop in on the session for a day, don't let the activity fool you. True productivity is in such short supply this session, some pessimists set the over-under on the number of bills getting passed in the single digits.

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