Future uncertain for constitutional officers' main legislative priorities

03/07/2013 12:32 PM

House Democrats and Senate Republicans will have plenty to argue about by the end of the 30-day legislative session, including the top priorities for a trio of up-and-coming statewide officials.

Those three bills all saw action Wednesday.

A House committee passed the hemp regulation bill Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has pushed for — although the Democratic House Speaker all but said the measure was dead.

A Senate panel changed a bill aimed at monitoring special taxing districts, such as water and sewer districts and libraries, which frustrated that measure’s chief cheerleader, Democratic state Auditor Adam Edelen.

And a House panel on Wednesday night changed the Senate’s latest version of a bill for military personnel to vote electronically when deployed overseas. That bill, Senate Bill 1, has been championed by Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Military voting

The Senate has embraced the concept of helping Kentucky troops who are deployed overseas to more easily return absentee ballots after Kentucky military personnel asked for 4,600 absentee ballots last fall but only about 3,300 were able to return them.

Grimes urged the House Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee on Wednesday night to make changes to SB1 to allow two extra days for overseas military personnel to return absentee ballots by mail and to allow them to file their ballots electronically if they choose. The House panel accepted the changes 5-0 with three Republicans passing.

“Each of you had individuals serving in the military … whose votes weren’t able to be counted during the 2012 election through no fault of their own,” Grimes said before quoting numbers from the home counties of each of the members of the committee.

Grimes forcefully pushed for the changes, telling the committee that what the Senate ultimately passed wasn’t enough to eliminate “barriers and obstacles to our men and women in uniform.”

“It is only half a measure. It is not the full measure our military is due and deserves,” she said.

Several clerks — and Republican lawmakers — took exception to the way Grimes framed her argument.

“I am a little disappointed, however, that Secretary suggested a vote against the committee sub would be a vote against our military,” said Rep. Mike Harmon, R-Danville.

Don Blevins, the Fayette County clerk and a Democrat, said “I don’t really like being” accused of being against U.S. troops for disagreeing with the changes. Blevins said he wants more time to learn about how the electronic voting system would work.

Most clerks oppose those changes, saying they have concerns with how the electronic voting system would work. In fact, 96 of the clerks oppose those changes, Oldham County Clerk Julie K. Barr told the committee.

And the difference in the Senate’s approach and what the House panel sent to the House floor means that the fate of the measure will likely be decided in a conference committee between the two chambers.

Different approaches on taxing districts

Similarly, the Senate on Wednesday made some changes to House Bill 1, which is meant to keep tabs on special districts that can impose fees or taxes. Among the 1,300 such districts that the state auditor’s office itemized for the first time last year are libraries, some volunteer fire departments and water and sewer districts.

Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, has been pushing for oversight of special districts for eight years.

On Wednesday, the Senate State and Local Government Committee approved Thayer’s changes to the bill by a vote of 8-2. His changes would allow county fiscal courts to veto any proposed fee or tax increase or budget increase.

That didn’t sit well with Edelen, who said the “governance issue” need further vetting and muddies down a bill that lawmakers of both parties largely agree on. Here’s what Edelen and Thayer say:

Both Edelen and Thayer said they expected the bill to land in a conference committee between House and Senate leaders.

Hemp bill in trouble

Much ink and many pixels have been spent on the bill to set-up a framework to regulate an industrial hemp industry in Kentucky.

Comer has been pushing it as a new opportunity for Kentucky farmers. And he said the urgency is because Kentucky members of Congress will lobby for a federal waiver to allow Kentucky farmers to grow it if the legislature approves a regulatory structure.

The House Agriculture Committee’s chairman had balked at taking up the legislation last week. Then Wednesday it finally made it through the panel with the vote of the chairman, Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana.

But House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he’s against the bill because it has “problems” and suggested that it wouldn’t make it to the House floor. Here’s what he said:

About Ryan Alessi

Ryan Alessi joined cn|2 in May 2010 as senior managing editor and host of Pure Politics. He is now pursuing an advanced degree in non-fiction writing from Murray State University and is a regular contributor to Pure Politics. Ryan has covered politics for more than 14 years, including seven years as a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Ryan can be reached at purepolitics@twcable.com or @mycn2 on Twitter.

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