State Treasurer and Democratic candidate for governor Jonathan Miller on Monday criticized legislation sponsored by Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, which would allow lawmakers to suspend, repeal or enact laws as part of the budget bill. Moberly chairs the House budget committee.

House Bill 184 is scheduled for action today in the House. It states: “A branch budget bill may amend, create, repeal or repeal and re-enact any statute beyond the effective period of the branch budget bill ...” and would also allow budget bills to contain language suspending one or more statutes by exempting the budget bill from their provisions.

Lawmakers routinely suspend such provisions as the one which requires an annual 5 percent pay increase for state employees for the period covered by the budget.

Miller says Moberly’s bill increases the secrecy of the budget process and concentrates power and authority in a handful of legislators.

But Moberly said his bill only intends to “clear up legislative authority and the different interpretations of the courts with respect to what we can do with a budget bill.”

A budget conference committee is made up of leaders of the House and Senate who reconcile different versions of the budget passed by the House and Senate. Last year, that conference committee met for a week behind closed doors with Kentucky State Police troopers guarding the hallways to the meeting room and legislative leaders were criticized by other legislators and newspaper editorial boards.

Miller invoked the closed-door image several times during a conference call Monday with reporters and sent an e-mail urging supporters to ask legislators to vote against the bill.

Rank-and-file lawmakers had one day last year to review the two-year budget before an up or down vote. Conferees inserted several provisions which were not in either the House or Senate versions of the budget. Some ended up in Franklin Circuit Court, which over turned three of them — although they are under appeal.

Miller said the practice also can lead to pork barrel projects which members might not know are in the budget when they vote. And even if they find them, lawmakers are forced to choose between voting against the budget or to approve provisions they would not normally support.

“That’s exactly the type of abuse we need to avoid and House Bill 184 would extend,” Miller said. But Moberly said Miller misses the point of his legislation.

“That’s a separate issue as to whether to have the budget conference in public,” Moberly said. “I’ve been an advocate in the past that we do the conference in public.”

HB 184, Moberly said, “doesn’t give us any more authority. It just makes clear to the courts (what the legislature is doing when it suspends or extends statutes past the period of the budget) so they won’t have a hard time interpreting what we’ve done.”

Moberly said his bill simply clarifies authority the legislature already has.

“There are over 40 statutes that have been enacted which are in jeopardy,” Moberly said. “It’s just an attempt to clear up the law.”

The bill applies to previous budgets because it could be expensive to undo those provisions already enacted.

Rep. Tanya Pullin, D-South Shore, was unhappy last year to have so little time to review the budget before voting on it. But Monday she said she doesn’t think Moberly is trying to cloud the budget process in secrecy.

“Chairman Moberly and others in the House leadership have made a genuine effort to open up the budget process by having an open subcommittee process with the active participation of members, and that’s the path we want to continue down,” Pullin said.

However, she is not sure how she will vote on HB 184 because “In the past two to three years, some portions of the process have been closed; and some members of the legislature — including me — have expressed deep concern over that.”

Miller believes the legislation would give legislative leaders more power and authority which “They believe they can use for the benefit of the commonwealth. But I think that is opposed to the concept of a democracy.”

Miller earlier called for reform of the budget process, requiring budget conferences to take place in public and require time for the full legislature to debate what the committee produces. That would require legislative approval, however; it is not something a governor can do on his or her own.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. He may be contacted by e-mail at rellis@cnhi.com. The Richmond Register is a CNHI newspaper.

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