The Richmond Register

March 12, 2013

Not much movement at General Assembly

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — FRANKFORT — As dinnertime rolled around for exhausted Kentucky lawmakers, on what was scheduled to be the final working day of the 2013 General Assembly, it was a day of “stand around and wait.”

Both chambers convened Tuesday morning but soon recessed to allow conference committees made up of members from both the House and the Senate to meet and work out differences on a few pieces of legislation.

But the biggest issue and the one on which the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House are farthest apart — pension reform — isn’t likely to be settled before the end of the session.

After Tuesday, lawmakers were scheduled to go home for 10 days — time to allow the governor to consider vetoes —and then return on March 25-26 to consider overriding any of those vetoes.

Gov. Steve Beshear, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, have all indicated it’s likely to take that long to resolve the pension issue.

The Senate passed a reform package based on recommendations of a legislative task force that met last year. That measure, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, would move new employees into a hybrid, cash-balance plan while preserving existing benefits for current employees and retirees. It also ends cost-of-living adjustments and states the legislature’s “intent” to make full payments to the system in the future — but it provided no revenue source.

Stumbo and Beshear have said all along the pension reform must be fully funded with a new, defined source of revenues.

The House revised the Senate bill to keep a defined benefit for future employees while requiring pre-funding if cost of living adjustments were granted. It also passed a companion bill to fund the fix from new revenues from expanded lottery games and statewide instant racing.

Both Stumbo and Beshear said Tuesday there had been no further meetings on the issue and Stumbo said the Senate must agree to some new source of funding to pay for the pension reform if the House is to go along.

“If there is a viable funding stream that pays down our unfunded liability, then I believe there is a clear way forward on the reform package,” Stumbo said Tuesday.

He said that means new money. That would lead bond-rating agencies to raise the state’s ratings and also provide an incentive for employees to resist future changes to the system, Stumbo said.

Thayer and Stivers have hinted they might go along with a defined source of funding, but they have steadfastly resisted raising any new revenues, suggested finding the money within the current budget.

There was movement on one issue: the two chambers agreed on a compromise to provide more accountability from taxing districts.

Instead of requiring local government legislative bodies to approve their tax rates or at least not veto them, the compromise simply requires the districts to report any tax increase and conduct a public meeting prior to the legislative body’s meeting.

Otherwise, the chambers continued to convene briefly, occasionally pass a minor bill that had come from the other chamber and then recess again for the conference committees to continue working.

Reporters waited all day for a conference committee on a bill to make it easier for military personnel to cast absentee ballots, but as of 6 p.m. EDT, there appeared to be no progress.

The Senate is hesitant to allow those ballots to be sent back by email, fearing they might be vulnerable to hacking. They also say most county clerks oppose the change. But the House so far has insisted on the measure as well as one to allow such ballots to be accepted and counted so long as they come in before the county certifies its vote count three days after the election.

A horde of lobbyists for AT&T walked the hallways still trying to gain support for a bill which would deregulate the communications industry, no longer requiring them to provide landline phone service if other options such as wireless were available.

A smaller group of lobbyists opposed to the measure — the Kentucky Resource Council, AARP and a few paid lobbyists — worked just as hard to prevent the bill’s passage.

The bill passed the Senate but Stumbo and several eastern Kentucky legislators in the House so far have opposed the measure, saying it will result in the loss of landlines to older, more rural customers in eastern Kentucky where cell service is not always reliable.

Others wondered if there was any hope of resurrecting a bill to regulate hemp cultivation should the federal government allow it to be grown.

The Senate passed such a bill, but Stumbo and the House say the bill isn’t necessary and presents problems for law enforcement because hemp is so hard to distinguish from marijuana.

Lawmakers continued to meet in conference committees at 6 p.m. but other than the compromise on taxing districts there were no reported breakthroughs as of that hour.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.