How Ky. officials snatched dysfunction from the jaws of respectability in the session's final day

04/13/2012 04:29 AM

Lawmakers already had unburdened themselves from a common source of last-day drama by passing a state budget two weeks ago. And entering the final day of legislative work, leaders had agreed in principle to a road projects priority list. Plus, to top it all off, leaders from both parties on both ends of the Capitol said they were confident of passing a bill aimed at attacking Kentucky’s prescription drug problem.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo predicted at noon that those major remaining bills could be passed “by supper.”

Then … nothing happened.

It was as if a race car ran out of gas mere feet from the finish line. Now Kentucky taxpayers will have to pay extra to push it across.

Gov. Steve Beshear told reporters shortly after 12:30 a.m. Friday that he would call a special session starting Monday. The House and Senate will have to come back to pass the unfinished spending bill for the transportation cabinet so more than 1,600 road projects can be funded. And Beshear said he will ask legislators also to pass the prescription pill bill.

The session for those two measures will cost more than $60,000 a day for at least the five days it takes to pass bills through both chambers.

Kentuckians have seen a version of this dissent into dysfunction in Frankfort before. The last three budget-related measures in recent sessions have required an extraordinary session.

But this session seemed to be going much smoother. Senate President David Williams called the budget negotiations at the end of last month the most cordial and productive in his 12 years as Senate president.

On Thursday, the Senate passed the measure outlining road project priorities by a 37-0 vote at 3 p.m. The House followed suit 77-16 at 7:08 p.m.

The transportation cabinet funding bill was up next — supposedly a mere formality. The governor told reporters after meeting with House Democrats Thursday afternoon that he understood “we have a road plan and a road budget that will be acceptable.”

But behind the scenes, things were beginning to unravel.

Senate Republicans, led by Williams, wanted Beshear to sign the transportation projects list into law before the Senate voted on the bill authorizing the road construction money. Without the funding bill, those projects couldn’t get started.

And Williams didn’t want to give Beshear the ability to veto the project list and be able to unilaterally decide how to spend the $4 billion in federal and state road and bridge construction money.

Beshear, meanwhile, expected the Senate, then the House, to pass the road money bill and wouldn’t sign the project list bill into law until the funding measure reached his desk.

Further eroding trust at the Capitol, Senate Republican leaders grumbled that they believed they had a deal two weeks ago with House Democratic leaders to override any vetoes the governor made to the $19 billion two-year executive branch budget bill.

Stumbo, the House Speaker, said they never made such a deal because the House Democratic caucus as a whole would have to decide whether to override vetoes.

The governor struck 45 line-items out of the budget bill on Wednesday night. And by late afternoon, Stumbo sent a message to Williams saying the House Democratic caucus decided collectively not to overturn any of Beshear’s vetoes after the governor made a pitch to them in a closed-door meeting.

As Thursday evening wore on, House Democrats became increasingly frustrated that the Senate had not taken action on several key House bills, including the prescription pill legislation and a measure designating some coal severance tax money for a scholarship program to benefit students in 38 coal-producing counties.

So Thursday evening quickly slid into Thursday night, as lawmakers waited around for their leaders to make deals that never came.

As the midnight deadline ticked closer, it became obvious that the 2012 General Assembly would leave key pieces of business unfinished — ending the way legislative sessions usually do now in Kentucky.


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