Legislature in review: Senate capped busy week with flurry of bills, debates

01/10/2011 09:47 AM

The Senate convened at 9 a.m. Friday and adjourned around 5:45 p.m. after passing eight major bills that were part of the Senate Republicans’ agenda for 2011.

Aside from a 45 minute lunch break, all 38 state Senators debated and voted on bills for a full eight-hour day.

Not since the General Assembly began having short 30-day sessions in odd years in 2001 have lawmakers from either chamber taken up major legislation during the first week, which is usually reserved for electing legislative leaders and making committee assignments.

With Republican Senate President David Williams of Burkesville running for governor, the collection of legislation he pushed last week offered a foundation for a platform as well as a legislative to-do list.

And the action in the chamber on Thursday and Friday underscored the limited political power that the Senate Democrats have now that their numbers have been reduced to 15. That’s down from 17 last year. Democrats sought to amend many of the bills on Friday and when that failed, they spoke against them. Each time it was to no avail.

Williams made a point to respond directly to most of the Democrats’ objections to bills or provisions in them throughout the day’s worth of debate in the Senate chamber on Friday. He told reporters after the Senate adjourned that the issues the Senate took up were widely supported among the Senate’s majority GOP caucus and had energized the group.

“I think that you can see from the conversation on the floor today and by the various people that are handling the bills that there is a lot of enthusiasm and fervor about the agenda,” Williams said.

As for the Democrats, Williams said he expects them to settle down by the end of the session. “I think things will level out over the next couple months, and I think we can have a productive session,” he told reporters.

He started his post-session press conference by explaining why the Senate did not take up the 13th bill in the agenda of the GOP caucus — legislation that would alter retirement benefits for state workers hired after June. He said lawmakers are still awaiting actuarial reports.

Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-Louisville, perhaps best summed up the frustration of that caucus in a floor speech late in the day.

“It has been an exciting day — a lot of theater today,” he said. “We started with Senate Bill 1. And I have to tell you, I never thought I’d live to see the day when the Kentucky state Senate would abdicate its responsibility and fiscal policy to a group of an accountant, a lawyer and a few college professors.”

Here’s a chronology of a busy first Friday, based on the tweets of cn|2 political reporter Kenny Colston, who was tracking all the action:

9 a.m — The Senate gears up to take on as many as nine bills from its ambitious 13 bill agenda, including bills dealing with tax reform, state employee pensions, immigration and charter schools.

9:27 a.m. — The Senate Republicans began the day in caucus in which they talked about the bills on the orders of the day, including Senate Bill 2, which rework the state’s retirement set-up for future state workers to set up a 401(k)-style defined contribution approach.

Later in the meeting, Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said the legislation would not be a panacea for saving the system money, and there will be some increased cost initially for the state to match employee contributions to their retirement accounts. But he said in the long run, it’s the right thing to do.

They also discussed a series of amendments Democrats had proposed.

10:40 a.m. — Debate gets under way on the individual bills. The first one up is Senate Bill 1, which would create a group of economists to recommend ways to revamp Kentucky’s tax code.

Senate Democratic Floor Leader R.J. Palmer of Winchester offers a floor amendment that would include House and Senate members on that tax reform task force. Williams has called Palmer’s amendment “not friendly,” essentially dooming it. Palmer’s amendment fails 15-22.

11:25 — Senate approves the bill creating the tax reform group, S.B. 1, by a 25-13 vote with all the Republicans plus Democratic Sens. Ray Jones of Pikeville and Gerald Neal of Louisville voting for it. Among the Democrats who sharply criticize the bill are Sens. Julian Carroll of Frankfort and Walter Blevins of Sandy Hook, who said the Senate should take up the issue of tax reform directly.

11:31 — Next up is Senate Bill 3, which would allow school districts to approve charter schools. One amendment offered by Neal, the Louisville Democrat, would block charter schools from being set up as non-profit organizations.  Williams told Republicans earlier that he considered the amendment “hostile.” The amendment fails along party lines. Debate rages for more than an hour.

12:40 p.m. — The charter schools bill passes 21-17 with two Republican Senators — Buford and Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard — voting against it.

12:55 p.m. — The chamber breaks for a 45-minute recess.

2 p.m.Senate Bill 4, which makes changes to the campaign finance and primary elections, comes up. It passes in fairly short order, 21-14 with Senators not present.

2:14 p.m. — Next up is Senate Bill 5, which requires a 48-hour waiting period before the chamber can vote on any bill related to state revenue. Jones, the Democrat from Pikeville, offers a suggested change to define a 24-hour waiting for floor amendments related to those revenue bills. He laments that fact that the minority caucus’ amendments keep failing, which is what happens when it’s 23-15.

Confusion ensues and the issue is tabled for the moment.

2:42 p.m. — The Senate takes up Senate Bill 6, which gives law enforcement agencies greater authority to check individuals’ immigration status. The Senate Democrats acknowledge in floor speeches that illegal immigrants are a problem but question the cost of S.B. 6 and how enforceable it is.

3:04 p.m. — The Senate begins voting on Senate Bill 6, prompting floor speeches.

3:48 p.m. — The measure passes, 24-14 with Jones again crossing party lines to vote with the majority.

3:58 p.m. — The Senate takes up and quickly passes Senate Bill 7. It is a return bill from 2010 that would set up a website to show all state expenditures. In a rare show of unity on Friday, the 38 senators unanimously approve it.

4:21 p.m. — Debate rages over legislation the Republicans have dubbed the “21st Century Bill of Rights,” which is Senate Bill 10. It is a constitutional amendment that, if approved by 3/5 of both chambers, would put on the election ballot language that weighs in on a series of controversial issues. It includes language to exclude Kentuckians from federal mandates to have health insurance, would outlaw abortion, guarantee the right to hunt and fish and own guns, bar laws that would prevent coal mining and prohibit expanded gambling.

Over objections by Democrats — Sen. Jerry Rhoads of Madisonville said most of the proposal already is covered by law — the bill passes 26-12. Three Democratic senators voted for it: Jones, Sen. Joey Pendleton of Hopkinsville and freshman Sen. Dennis Parrett of Elizabethdown.

4:48 p.m.Senate Bill 11, which aims to crack down on Medicaid fraud, unanimously passes.

4:52 p.m. — Senate recesses to go into the Appropriations Committee meeting to get organized on Senate Bill 5 again — the bill that calls for a 48-hour waiting period.

Senate Republicans agree to Jones’ amendment to set out a 24-hour period for floor amendments before voting on the bill.

5:04 p.m. The legislation passes 38-0.

- Reporting and video produced by Kenny Colston


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