Legislature set to consider number of high-profile bills upon return from veto recess

03/22/2015 05:53 PM

A handful of unresolved issues will greet the General Assembly when lawmakers return to Frankfort on Monday, from addressing the state’s heroin epidemic to deciding whether to stop a plummeting gas tax that’s set to create a $250 million budgetary hole in little more than a week.

Lawmakers have met in public and private in the final days of a quiet veto recess.

While handing out a number of ceremonial pens at public bill signings since the break began, Gov. Steve Beshear has not disapproved any legislation with only Monday remaining in the veto period.

The legislature is set to adjourn sine day Tuesday after meeting only 28 days in the 30-day, odd-year session, so here’s a look at major pieces left on the General Assembly’s agenda in their last two days of work:

Heroin

Tension among House and Senate negotiators on Senate Bill 192 appeared to cool following a closed-door, three-and-a-half-hour meeting Friday evening, with the chairmen of the chambers’ judiciary committees more optimistic that a deal can be reached.

The conferees plan to brief their respective caucuses on negotiations Monday, and few details on potential compromises were revealed once lawmakers emerged from their private meeting late Friday.

Conferees writing the wide-ranging response to the heroin scourge entered the private discussion split on how to punish low-level traffickers, whether to allow locally mandated needle-exchange programs and how to protect those who alert emergency responders of overdoses.

Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, said the committee’s talks behind closed doors largely mirrored the conversation had in public on Friday, but lawmakers also tested new ideas in private.

“There was still some of the same disagreement, there was still some of the same passion, there was still some of the same concurrence on issues,” he said after conferees dispersed.

Gas tax

Lawmakers hoping to resolve a rapidly shrinking gas tax stayed out of the public light during the veto recess, but interests on both sides have ratcheted up pressure on the state’s radio airwaves.

Kentucky’s gas tax is set to drop 5.1 cents per gallon on April 1, a decline that will cost the biennial Road Fund budget an estimated $250.4 million.

Sen. Ernie Harris, R-Prospect, has proposed freezing the floor on the average price of wholesale gasoline, on which the tax rate is set, at its current level, but some are squeamish at the thought of voting for anything that could be considered a tax increase.

“I would say that’s a big problem with some people,” Senate President Robert Stivers said Thursday at a press conference in his Capitol Annex office, adding his opinion that a better mechanism could have prevented such sheer drops in the gas tax rate.

Growth in the average price of wholesale gasoline is capped at 10 percent annually, but there’s no such floor to control declines in current law.

Politics have been injected in previous debates on the gas tax, as Republicans pounced on the Democrat-led House’s vote last session on a proposal to retroactively freeze the rate’s floor during the fall election cycle.

Stivers, R-Manchester, said lawmakers have been meeting with Beshear during the veto recess to hammer out a resolution on the tax issue, but whether it’s a tax increase will likely depend on perspective.

“People are going to spin it any way they want to spin it,” he said, noting his belief that freezing the current rate is not an increase though he can “understand the legitimacy” of the opposition’s arguments. “Some people will say that, some people will not.”

The conservative 501c(4) group Americans for Prosperity and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce have launched competing radio ads on the gas tax as lawmakers prepare their proposal.

Julia Crigler, state director for AFP’s Kentucky branch, said lawmakers should have expected gas prices to drop from record prices last summer.

“When revenues were pouring in from record gas prices responsible lawmakers would have set aside funds, knowing that what goes up must come down, but what we are seeing is Frankfort choosing to appease special interests over Kentucky families and fixed income seniors,” she said in a statement.


The chamber will continue its push for a gas tax resolution Monday at a Capitol rally with Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock and local officials, who stand to lose an estimated 31 percent in road maintenance funds with a 5.1-cent-per-gallon rate drop.

Beshear has remained optimistic an agreement can be reached.

Teachers’ pensions

Lawmakers on the heroin conference committee weren’t alone behind closed doors Friday.

Conferees on House Bill 4, House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s proposal to pump $3.3 billion in bonds into the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System, discussed the legislation in public and private as conferees on SB 192 huddled in the same settings a floor below in the Capitol Annex.

KTRS officials have said the bonding plan will give the state an eight-year window to craft a long-term funding plan for the pension agency, which faces nearly $14 billion in unfunded liabilities.

But Senate Republicans have balked at Stumbo’s $3.3 billion bonding strategy, instead calling for an interim study of KTRS for possible reforms in the next legislative session.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, offered a compromise to break the impasse Friday: sell $1.9 billion in bonds now, study KTRS in the interim, then issue the remaining $1.4 billion in bonds if feasible.

“The fundamental question, I think, is are you comfortable that the market is at its lowest point?” Stumbo told reporters during a break in the HB 4 conference Friday.

“If you believe the market’s going to go down then maybe you want a study. If you believe that the market’s going to rise, we probably ought to act now and let them go ahead and issue the bonds, study the reforms because the study that they’re talking about, it’s just about reforms going forward.”

Odds and ends

Other conference committees have work to do before Tuesday’s sine die adjournment.

Lawmakers are meeting on proposals to double the cap on political donations, reopen the state budget for sewer and water projects added by the House in legislation adjusting the tobacco master settlement agreement, grant tax credits for food donated by restaurants, and address low-performing schools.

Some issues, such as a compromise bill on dating violence, remain on lawmakers’ agenda yet face slim chances of dying at the 11th hour. Others with more dire prospects, like House Bill 443 on public-private partnerships, continue to be pitched.

“Everybody is so afraid that somebody will come out of the woodwork and classify a vote on that bill as a vote for tolls that they’re running for cover right now,” Beshear said last week after signing a bill granting tax incentives for the Breeders’ Cup World Championship at Keeneland this year.

“And I’m going to keep talking to see if I can’t pull ‘em out from under the cover and let’s get a vote on it.”

Veto power

Beshear, the second governor to serve two consecutive terms in office under a constitutional amendment passed in 1992, will end his final term in office with a heavy hand over legislation passed in the next two days.

Lawmakers can override any vetoes issued by the Democratic governor, but with only Monday remaining for vetoes, Beshear hasn’t axed a single piece of legislation. His only public veto threat came before the House voted on HB 443, urging representatives to keep a tolling amendment off the bill.

But it’s too early to say whether his veto pen will stay uncapped once the session ends. The legislature will not be able to override any vetoes on bills passed once lawmakers return from the break Monday.

Beshear declined to say whether he’s discussed potential vetoes with legislative leaders, calling such confidential talks key to maintaining a working relationship with top lawmakers.

“We don’t go out and try to make somebody look bad or good because we know that if we can talk with each other and develop a trust then we can make good things happen, so I won’t get into conversations on specific bills right now,” he said last week.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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