Sunday, January 02, 2000

General Assembly begins with new balance of power




BY PATRICK CROWLEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT MITCHELL — Northern Kentucky lawmakers head to Frankfort this week for the first legislative session of the new century facing a tight budget, calls to reform earlier reforms and a historic balance of power that could teeter on a fault line between progress and gridlock.

        Between Tuesday's opening of the 134th regular General Assembly legislative session and its end in early April, Kentucky's 138 lawmakers will take up more than 1,000 bills on issues that include taxes, abortion, manners, the Ten Commandments, education, health insurance, spending the public's money and litter.

        All of this will take place against an uneasy backdrop of Democrats controlling the House and, for the first time, Republicans holding a Senate majority.

        “I think we can get along,” said House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, D-Wilder. “It may not always be easy, but it will have to be done if we expect to get much accomplished.”

        Gov. Paul Patton will lay out much of his agenda the first night of the session when he delivers the State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature.

        That will be followed by the budget he must deliver to lawmakersby Jan. 25.

        Expect some real politicking to begin once the numbers are out, Mr. Callahan warned.

        “The number one issue is going to be the budget. From

        the budget there is so much spinoff because so much in state government runs hand-in-hand with how much money is available,” he said.

        There won't be as much money as there was during the last session two years ago.

        In 1998, the state had a $400 million budget surplus, money that was used primarily to fund projects across the state at Mr. Patton's behest.

        This year, the state faces a $75 million deficit at the end of the state's fiscal year in June.

        “That's a big turnaround,” said Mr. Callahan, a member of the House budget committee. “The budget is going to be tight this year, and it's going to require some very astute leadership to make sure we clear up that deficit and spend what money we have wisely.”

        But lawmakers also will move quickly to take even more money out of the state's revenue stream by eliminating the state's portion — about 30 percent — of the state's property tax on vehicles.

        The tax, one of the most hated in Kentucky, is paid annually when vehicle owners renew their license plates.

        There could be proposals to eliminate the entire tax, but that means local governments and schools would receive millions of dollars less each year to pay salaries and fund programs.

        Lawmakers also will decide how to allocate the $3.5 billion Kentucky will receive over the next 25 years as part of the federal tobacco settlement.

        State officials have already predicted a grab for the money, particularly given how lean the budget will be over the next two years.

        State Sen. Dick Roeding, R-Lakeside Park, said a portion of the tobacco settlement money, as much as $25 million, should be used to shore up Kentucky's ailing health insurance system.

        The money could go toward guaranteeing policies for people too sick or too poor to afford health insurance, he said.

        “It could also help bring back some of the insurance companies that have left Kentucky and no longer sell health insurance here because of the problems with our health care system in Kentucky,” he said.

        Democratic-led administrations tried to reform the state's health insurance market several times during the 1990s. But the reforms largely failed when insurance companies left the state, claiming they couldn't make money under the new system.

        Today only one company is selling individual policies in Kentucky and rates have skyrocketed, Mr. Roeding said.

        “If we don't do anything else in this session,” Mr. Roeding said, “we need to restore competition to our health insurance market.”

        Another reform that will be tweaked has to do with workers' compensation.

        It was changed three years ago in an effort led by Mr. Patton. The system lowered rates for businesses and reduced the number of claims by making it harder for workers to collect benefits.

        But workers and organized labor have complained that truly injured workers aren't getting the benefits they deserve.

        “We're going to have a tough job figuring out if any changes are needed,” said Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas, who chairs the panel — Economic Development and Labor Committee — that will handle the workers' comp bill.

        Mrs. Stine said she also will push economic development initiatives designed to attract more high-tech jobs into Kentucky, including into high unemployment areas.

        She points to the distribution facility Internet retailer Amazon.com is building in Campbellsville — a southern Kentucky town economically stung when a Fruit of the Loom plant closed last year — as an example of the kind of company she wants to attract.

        Other bills and issues the legislature will consider include:

        • Early childhood development. Placing a strong emphasis on prenatal counseling and parenting skills and the training of childcare workers will be part of a legislative package that Mr. Patton will push.

        • Education. All-day kindergarten, teacher quality and more job training for adults are among the proposals facing lawmakers.

        • Ten Commandments. The General Assembly will be asked to let voters decide, one school district at a time, whether the commandments should be displayed in classrooms.

        • Courtesy. A “good manners” bill aimed at requiring school students to address teachers and school employees in respectful terms: No, sir. Yes, ma'am. Mr. and Mrs.

        Teachers would have to correct impolite students as they would for improper grammar. Supporters say mandatory manners would put respect back in the classroom.

        • Character. Mandatory “character education” would be part of a school curriculum. A proposed bill defines it as educational strategies to sharpen students' moral and ethical decision making skills, among other things.

        • Abortion. A pair of Northern Kentucky lawmakers — Rep. Tom Kerr, D-Taylor Mill, and Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Fort Thomas — have proposed laws to regulate or restrict abortions, including efforts to make the killing of a fetus grounds for civil or criminal action.

        • Litter. A bill would establish a deposit of up to a dime on discarded drink containers. Few if any Northern Kentucky lawmakers say they will support the bill because the region has effective recycling programs in place. headFACTS, FIGURES

        Here are some facts, figures and notes on the 134th regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly that begins Tuesday.Members. There are 138 legislative seats, 100 in the House and 38 in the Senate. The House has 64 Democrats and 35 Republicans with one seat vacant. The Senate has 20 Republicans and 18 Democrats.

        Compensation. Lawmakers make $153.57 each calendar day of the 60-day legislative session. Expenses include $88 per diem; $50 for stationery; $950 for postage; 31 cents a mile for travel; and $20,000 life insurance. Members of leadership, committee chairs and party leaders make additional money, from about $40 to $15 each day.

        Cost. Regular session costs Kentucky taxpayers about $59,000 a day.

        Contacts. There are several ways to contact lawmakers or receive information about the General Assembly. Here are some of the phone numbers: Citizen contact line, (800) 592-4399; to leave a message for legislators, (800) 372-7181; TTY message line, (800) 896-0305; meeting information, (800) 633-9650; bill status, (888) 372-7181.

        Cyber-session. The Legislative Research Commission Web page will be updated daily with information about the session, including a summary and status of each bill and the day's meeting calendar. The Web address is www.lrc.state.ky.us.

       



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