The Richmond Register

March 4, 2013

Hemp bill on table again; redistricting in ‘final phase’

Frankfort

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — Watching the 2013 General Assembly is a bit like watching Kentucky’s weather. If you don’t like what you hear one day, just stick around for what they say the next.

When lawmakers left town Friday, a bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, to regulate hemp cultivation if the federal government allows it and pushed by Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer appeared dead in the Democratic-controlled House.

Meanwhile, Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, told reporters he expected to share a House redistricting plan with the Democratic House caucus Monday.

Check both of those.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, said Monday afternoon that after Comer visited McKee’s home county of Harrison County earlier that morning the House committee would take up Hornback’s bill Wednesday. And, McKee intends to vote for it.

“That’s correct,” McKee said when asked about the turnaround. “I’m going to vote for it. I don’t know how anyone else will vote.”

The last time the bill was before McKee’s committee, McKee said he intended to offer a substitute version, but the committee appeared prepared to vote for the original bill. So McKee first recessed, then later adjourned the committee without a vote on either.

His new position would appear to mean the bill will pass out of McKee’s committee, but that doesn’t mean it will get a vote on the floor of the House.

Stumbo said Monday afternoon he still opposes the bill.

“I’m not for the bill,” Stumbo said. “I don’t think we need it.”

Comer has said he thinks the bill would get upwards of 60 or 70 votes if it receives a vote in the 100-member House. But even if it passes out of McKee’s committee, the bill could still be bottled up in the Rules Committer by the House leadership.

Stumbo said he’s requested an opinion from Attorney General Jack Conway about whether a 2001 law already on the books prepares Kentucky to move immediately on hemp cultivation if the federal government either legalizes its growth or offers Kentucky a waiver to test its cultivation.

Redistricting also will have to wait another day.

“It is in its final phase,” Stumbo said when asked about redistricting, giving that answer for what seemed the third or fourth consecutive day. “We hope to be able to present it to the caucus (Tuesday). They’re ― as we speak ― still working to get everything correct.”

The near-constant delay on redistricting in the House suggests disagreement within the Democratic caucus. Republicans still haven’t seen even a preliminary map.

The problem apparently is trying to satisfy everyone inside the “mountain caucus” of eastern Kentucky.

Rep. Kevin Sinnette, D-Ashland, said Monday there have been several “final” votes on maps for the eastern Kentucky districts.

“It seems like we vote on a plan and then afterward, they come back with another plan,” Sinnette said.

Even if House Democrats approve a plan for their chamber, Republican Senate leaders have said they don’t intend to take up re-districting.

Stumbo said he still thinks the Senate should pass the House plan ― “and we’ll stand up publicly, and say we’ll pass their plan” whenever the Senate acts.

But Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said the Senate isn’t likely to pass the House plan with only a guarantee that the House will then approve whatever plan the Senate comes up with.

“You always cut the deck before the cards are dealt because it’s customary among gentlemen and necessary among thieves,” Stivers said.

The two chambers also remained at an impasse on what was expected to be the biggest issue of the non-budget, 30-day session: state-employee pension reform.

The Republican-controlled Senate passed a fix based on recommendations of a bi-partisan task force with no provisions for how to fund the annually required contributions to the system.

The House re-wrote the bill and passed a companion bill to fund the system through growth revenues from the lottery and revenues from instant racing.

Neither chamber will accept the other’s bills, citing various alleged procedural deficiencies.

Stumbo said Monday he still hopes the two chambers can set up a conference committee to work out their differences and thereby avoid a special session.

Stivers said the Senate is ready to discuss the pension impasse, but he continued to say the funding mechanism should be taken up in the 2014 budget session. Budgets, he said, are to establish priorities.

He also suggested that “any subject discussed in the General Assembly” could be brought up in a free conference committee between the two chambers, apparently holding out the prospect that both the pension framework and funding measures could be discussed in such a committee.

At least one thing got done Monday; the Senate passed a bill already passed in the House to “tweak” last year’s bill to crack down on pain-pill abuse. The changes were adopted to allow hospitals, hospices and long-term care facilities to prescribe the drugs without pursuing full reports on past use by patients.

House Bill 217 now goes to Gov. Steve Beshear for his signature.

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.