Holding the line trumped compromising in session

06/01/2010 08:52 AM

FRANKFORT – The power of hard-line negotiating ruled last week’s special session and was in full display in two pieces of legislation that passed – and one that didn’t.

No legislator more embodied the tone of the six-day session than Rep. Larry Clark, the House speaker pro tem and a Louisville Democrat.

Clark, a veteran lawmaker and old-school advocate for organized labor, was a central figure in two of the major issues on last week’s agenda of unfinished legislative business from the regular session.

He fought for a particular version of a proposed fix to the state’s beleaguered unemployment insurance fund. And he went toe-to-toe with the bourbon industry.

Both issues went Clark’s way in the end, although it got messy at times.

The bourbon meltdown

A host of theories and accusations emerged aimed at explaining the spectacular failure of a little bill that was supposed to allow bourbon distillers to provide free samples at this fall’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

But what was clear was that Clark and the bourbon industry landed cross-ways with each other.

He said the bourbon industry kept moving the goal posts back and wanted the permanent ability to offer samplings at large events – not just access to this year’s equestrian games.

Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, said that wasn’t true and that the distillers tried to explain that.

Regardless, the distrust snowballed. And all chances of the bill passing were lost on Thursday night when Clark met with representatives with Brown Forman.

“I offered to make negotiations with them; They said, ‘No deal,’” Clark said Friday. “So it’s dead.”

Clark flexed his political power in a showdown with Rep. Susan Westrom, a Lexington Democrat who initially sponsored the bourbon bill. Westrom claimed Clark sought to kill the bill out of anger for the distillery industry not backing his bill to allow alcohol sales at state parks.

Obviously, Larry and I can’t have a civil conversation because he goes berserk,” Westrom told cn|2 Politics.

“We have one person over here who seems to be in control of an industry and that should send shudders through every industry in the state.”

Clark declined to respond to that, saying he had no interest in debating Westrom through the media.

In the end, though, the bourbon industry left empty-handed with the sampling bill and a provision the Senate proposed in a state revenue bill that would have given the bourbon industry a tax credit.

Jay Hibbard, vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council in Washington singled out Clark in a statement Saturday as part of the reason the legislation was “derailed by a stream of misinformation, rhetoric and various personalities.”

Clark issued his own take on the events in a press release Friday night:. “Some of the bill’s supporters resorted to heavy-handed, divisive tactics that had the result of creating controversy surrounding the bill during a short special session, exactly the wrong time for that to happen on any issue.”

Unemployment insurance fix

Clark also was the primary author of legislation to help make solvent the trust fund to help out-of-work Kentuckians.

When Clark found out Sen. David Givens, a Greensburg Republican, offered amendments that would have scaled back the benefits for those unemployed workers, he responded that any changes wouldn’t be accepted by the House.

He went on to call Givens’ suggestions “inhuman,” among other adjectives.

And six hours after making those comments, the Senate passed the unemployment insurance fix the way it was making it the first major bill of the special session to pass both chambers.

Senate influences budget bill

Finally, the version of the state budget that passed Friday night looked a lot like the Senate-edited version of the $17.3 billion two-year spending plan from April. In fact, many House lawmakers repeatedly bemoaned that in their floor speeches before voting for the bill anyway.

Rep. Harry Moberly, a retiring Democrat from Richmond, blasted Gov. Steve Beshear for what he considered to be conceding to the demands of Senate President David Williams.

“I expected someone, particularly from the Democratic Party, to recognize that we can’t just sit around and whine,” Moberly said. “Where is that reflected on the first floor?”

Williams, a Burkesville Republican, stayed firm in opposition to the more than $1 billion in construction projects included in the House version of the budget from March. Williams argued that it would have dangerously bloated Kentucky’s debt level.

And while the Senate and House compromised on some details of the budget – such as finding a way to help some districts with the most dilapidated schools – the broad strokes of the this final budget were more in line with the Senate’s budget.

Personality politics?

Several lawmakers said they believed some of what happened, particularly in the with the bourbon bill, was motivated more by personal differences than philosophy and policy.

“I think there’s some infighting,” said Rep. Carl Rollins, a Midway Democrat. “There’s some hard feelings.”

But Rollins said he didn’t think the spat between Clark and Westrom (or the bourbon industry) would cause a permanent rift among House Democrats or undermine the House’s bargaining position with the Senate.

“I don’t think it harms us. I think our leaders have actually worked well together – fairly well,” Rollins said.

But another Democrat, Sen. Kathy Stein of Lexington, said egos and “personal sniping” are damaging the General Assembly and the commonwealth.

“This open sniping is not good, and it needs to stop right now,” said Stein, who is one of the most outspoken legislators. “Don’t worry who gets credit for something – just get it done.”

- Ryan Alessi

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