House adjourns, 2009 session ends a day early

With several substantial legislative proposals on the table, the 2009 regular session of the General Assembly ended a day early Thursday and set the stage for the possibility of special session this summer.

The early end came after the House voted to adjourn for the session over the objections of some lawmakers and Gov. Steve Beshear, who had urged action on an economic development incentives bill and a proposal to create a transportation infrastructure authority.

“The (House Democratic) caucus was of the opinion that this has been a good session,” House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat, said. “There are some issues that are still out there, but nothing that can’t be dealt with at a later date.” Continue reading

Chair of western KY caucus makes pitch to use final two days of session

The chairman of the Western Kentucky Caucus has made an appeal to House and Senate members from the region for the final two days of the session to be used to take up remaining legislation, including House Bill 102 and House Bill 229.

Sen. Dorsey Ridley, D-Henderson (LRC photo)

Sen. Dorsey Ridley, D-Henderson (LRC photo)

“I am writing in hopes to gain your support for HB 102, regarding the bridge authority bill, and HB 229, regarding the economic development incentive bill,” Sen. Dorsey Ridley wrote in an e-mail sent today to western Kentucky lawmakers. “Please request House Leadership to allow action to be taken on these pieces of legislation.”

Ridley, a Henderson Democrat, sponsored legislation in the Senate to create a state transportation infrastructure authority similar to what is proposed in House Bill 102. The authority could be used to help finance the Ohio River bridges in Louisville and the bridge at Henderson as part of Interstate 69’s proposed route through the state – both projects with price tags in the billions of dollars.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Monday that the House should stick to its rules by using the final two days of the session on Thursday and Friday solely to override any vetoes by Gov. Steve Beshear. Stumbo said those rules could be suspended, depending upon the will of the House Democratic Caucus, which is scheduled to meet Thursday.

Ridley said both bills are needed to help Kentucky, particularly this end of the state, and should be taken up before the session ends.

“We all need to work together on these issues and the betterment of our state, particularly Western Kentucky,” Ridley said in the e-mail sent to members of his caucus. “I am hoping that by working together these bills will continue the process on Thursday and Friday.”

Governor, House leaders at odds over energy policy

The debate over the state’s comprehensive energy policy could be over for this year’s legislative session, or could be taken up in the session’s final two days next week, depending upon who you ask.

House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, a Sandy Hook Democrat and the chamber’s point person on energy issues, said earlier this week that his House Bill 537, which would help outline the state’s energy policy, is dead for the session.

The announcement came after the Senate tacked on provisions to the bill that would lift the state’s moratorium on nuclear energy production and open up state-owned lands for oil and gas well leases, according to the Courier-Journal.

“The Senate is not willing to recede in those additions they have put onto it, so House bill 537 is dead for this session,” Adkins said in the statement.

But during a sweep through western Kentucky on Thursday to hand out Department of Homeland Security grants, Gov. Steve Beshear urged passage of the bill with the additions, the site KYWordsmith.com is reporting.

Beshear reportedly defended the nuclear energy provisions in the bill, saying that it will allow the discussion to begin about whether the state should allow nuclear power plants during a stop in Paducah, according to KYWordsmith.com.

The remarks apparently received a warm reception in the Paducah area, which is home to a uranium enrichment facility and to Sen. Bob Leeper, the Independent lawmaker who has pushed for the moratorium to be lifted for at least two legislative sessions.

The House and Senate reconvene for the final two days of the session on March 26.

Road plan stalls over gas tax freeze

Work to pass a road plan and funding mechanism stalled Friday over a disagreement between House and Senate  leaders about when the legislation should be delivered to Gov. Steve Beshear.

Senate President David Williams said Friday morning during a press conference with House Speaker Greg Stumbo that he wants the governor make any vetoes in the road plan and sign it into law before the Senate passes a freeze of the state’s motor fuels tax.

House Bill 374 would freeze the motor fuels tax at its current rate and allow the state to use that revenue to borrow about $400 million toward the $1.2 billion transportation spending plan contained in House Bill 330. The tax rate is currently set to drop by four cents on April 1 without action by the legislature.

“If (the governor) signs the bill today, we’ll pass the four pennies,” Williams said. “If he doesn’t sign the road plan bill or he vetoes it, we won’t need the pennies.”

That’s not how Stumbo and many House members, who have already passed the road plan and the tax freeze, want to see the legislation move forward.

Stumbo said House members won’t want to send the road plan to the governor if the Senate hasn’t already signed off on the tax freeze.

“I think we’d like to see the Senate pass the pennies first,” Stumbo said. Continue reading

Stumbo lays out need for slots bill for committee

Perhaps laying the groundwork for a special session this summer, House Speaker Greg Stumbo made another pitch on Thursday to allow video lottery terminals at Kentucky’s horse racetracks.

Speaking to the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee and flanked by track owners, Stumbo told his fellow House members that the horse racing and breeding industry in Kentucky is facing insurmountable competition from other states.

“I believe that after you look at the facts and consider what’s happening to our state, it’s pretty obvious … that we are in jeopardy,” said Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat. “We have our sister states who are stealing, or trying to steal, not only our Kentucky dollars but our Kentucky signature industry as well.”

Passing such a proposal during special session this year is likely the only way to keep Ellis Park in Henderson open for another season of racing next year, track owner Ron Geary said following the meeting.

Geary said the track is losing horses to out-of-state tracks that are able to offer larger purses because they also have on-site slot machines like those being proposed by Stumbo’s House Bill 158.

Two Indiana tracks with slot machines have also scheduled meets this summer that overlap with Ellis Park’s traditional season that runs from July 4 to Labor Day to attract many of the horses and trainers that come to Ellis to race.

“We’re petitioning, we’re encouraging and we’re begging the governor and the leadership to consider a special session before June 30,” Geary said. “If they have to deal with other revenue shortfalls in a budget situation, this could be a solution to some of that.” Continue reading

Senate committee passes road plan, saves vote on tax freeze until later

The Senate Transportation Committee voted this afternoon to send the proposed six-year road plan to the full chamber, but delayed action on a proposal to freeze the state’s motor fuels tax.

House Bill 330, which lays out transportation spending for this fiscal year and the next, along with House Joint Resolution 105, which sets project funding for the last four years of the six-year plan, both passed the committee without opposition.

An expected vote on House Bill 374, which would stop an scheduled 4-cent drop in the motor fuels tax next month, won’t come until later today or tomorrow.

Committee Chairman Sen. Ernie Harris, a Crestwood Republican, said he didn’t anticipate any changes to tax freeze bill and expects it to pass the full Senate by a healthy margin, but couldn’t say why there is a delay on the vote.

The freeze of the motor fuels tax would allow the state to use that revenue to borrow about $400 million to help fund the road plan.

“We don’t have a date or a time for the funding bill,” Harris said. “I’ve heard maybe a couple of questions about it, but I think it’s going to be passed overwhelmingly.”

Also still in limbo is House Bill 102 that would allow for the creation of local transportation infrastructure authorities to borrow money and levy tolls to pay for the state’s mega transportation projects, including Interstate 69 through western Kentucky.

Harris said that bill be taken up today or tomorrow, and changes are reportedly being made to the bill to ensure it wouldn’t be used for any multi-state projects besides those between Kentucky and Indiana.

In northern Kentucky, where many are pushing for the replacement of the Brent Spence bridge across the Ohio River to Cincinnati, the idea of the authorities and using tolls to pay for that project has met resistance.

Retirement bill gets another shot in Senate A&R Committee on Thursday

The Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee will be taking a fresh look at a proposal to allow local governments to stretch out their increasing payments into the County Employees Retirement System.

House Bill 117 would give city and county governments and school boards 10 years instead of five to make actuarially required payments into the system to cover increasing health benefits.

Many local governments have asked for some short-term relief from the increasing payments, even though stretching out the payments over 10 years is expected to cost them more in the long term.

The committee had a hearing on the bill on Tuesday, but passed over the bill without taking a vote.

Committee Chairman Charlie Borders, a Grayson Republican, said Wednesday that he had been opposed to House Bill 117, but after hearing from more in local government now supports the measure.

Borders said he had not counted votes, and was unsure if the bill had enough support in the committee to pass.

Slots bill to receive hearing on Thursday

After a flurry of attention earlier this session, a bill that would allow video lottery terminals at Kentucky’s horse racetracks is set for another hearing Thursday.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo (LRC photo)

House Speaker Greg Stumbo (LRC photo)

House Speaker Greg Stumbo told reporters this afternoon that the hearing will allow lawmakers to become more educated about House Bill 158, but no vote will be called on the bill in the final days of this year’s session.

“We’ve always said that that bill needed some more vetting,” Stumbo told reporters. “The hearing tomorrow hopefully will bring to light some of the problems and/or facts associated with critical issues in that bill.”

Stumbo didn’t rule out the possibility that the measure could be included in a special legislative session held this summer, but said that decision is Gov. Steve Beshear‘s to make.

The bill is generating more interest late in this year’s legislative session, Stumbo said, and it is one of the things on the table as the General Assembly looks ahead to balancing next fiscal year’s budget.

“It’s being talked about more favorably now than it was in early January,” Stumbo said.

The announcement this week by Ellis Park owner Ron Geary that he may close the Henderson track next year has elicited more interest in the bill, Stumbo said.

“That’s pretty real evidence that this problem that our tracks are having is real and that it’s imminent,” Stumbo said.

The bill will be called during the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee meeting which begins at 10 a.m. EDT.

Update, 5:22 p.m. …

Stumbo will be joined at the meeting by Geary, Nick Nicholson who is president and CEO of Keeneland in Lexington, and the Innovation Group, a national consultant on matters involving the gaming, leisure and hospitality industries, according to Stumbo’s office.

Road plan still receiving scrutiny in the Senate

Lawmakers are continuing to work on the state’s road plan passed by the House last week, with a Senate Transportation Committee meeting this morning coming and going without  the measure being called for a vote.

Sen. Ernie Harris, a Crestwood Republican and the committee’s chair, said some minor projects omitted from House Bill 330 were being added, and once those changes are made the plan and accompanying freeze of the state’s gas tax will be taken up.

“I don’t know when we’re going to have it,” Harris said after the committee adjourned. “I guess there are some negotiations, some discussions between our leadership, the House leadership and the governor on this and a variety of issues.”

Harris said that included in that discussion is House Bill 102 which would allow for the creation of local transportation authorities to finance the construction of transportation mega projects such as the Louisville bridges and Interstate 69 through western Kentucky.

That bill cleared the House on Monday and has also been sent to the Senate Transportation Committee.

Senate President David Williams said last week that he had hoped to have the road plan approved by the full Senate by the end of today.

Harris said the committee could meet again today after the Senate convenes at 2 p.m. EDT.

Update, 3:02 p.m. …

Harris said this afternoon before the Senate convened that as of right now, there are no plans to take up the road plan or the authority bill today.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo told reporters that he was still confident that the road plan would be passed in the final three working days of this year’s session.

Retirement system relief bill passed over by Senate A&R

A bill that would allow participants in the County Employees Retirement System to stretch out increased payments to the system over 10 years instead of five has been passed over by the Senate A&R Committee.

House Bill 117 is being pushed by cities, counties and school boards to help ease the immediate impact of increasing payments into the system for health insurance benefits, but would cost those entities more over the long term.

Under the bill, the first few annual payments made by local governments and school boards would be lower, but they would pay a combined $120 million more over the 10 years than if they stuck to the five-year plan.

“It must be understood … that our school board members, our mayors and our judges understand this issue,” Rep. Mike Cherry, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee. “They are asking to change the terms slightly. … They understand that they are going to have to pay more in the long run.”

That amounts to poor fiscal policy, particularly since economic recovery in the next several years isn’t certain, said Sen. Robert Stivers, a Manchester Republican.

Stivers noted that the General Assembly acted last year during special session to increase the payments the state makes into its retirement system after years of underfunding. That action helped dig the state out of a fiscal hole it had dug by not making the actuarially required payments into the system for years, Stivers said.

“We’re walking down the street and picking up shovels and digging another hole for somebody else,” Stivers said about House Bill 117. “We are just waiting for the day to pay the piper.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Charlie Borders didn’t call a vote on the bill, and Cherry said after the meeting that he wasn’t sure if the measure would be called for a vote this session, which has five working days remaining.

The bill has already passed the House, but would need to pass the committee and the full Senate by the time the session ends.