Monday, December 11, 2000

Few bills likely for historic Assembly

Legislators may hear car tax, bottle issues

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Legislators are playing down expectations for what will be a historic General Assembly session that begins in early February.

        Because lawmakers will meet for just 30 days and are unlikely to tackle any topics or bills related to spending, legislative leaders are not predicting the passage of any landmark or controversial legislation.

        “At this point I just don't see a lot of controversy out there,” said House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, a Wilder Democrat. “You never know what is going to happen once we get to Frankfort, but for now I think things could go relatively smoothly.

        “We'll just have to wait and see.”

        Lawmakers will meet the first week of January to select legislative leaders and make committee assignments.

        But the session set to run Feb. 6 to March 23 will be the first under a constitutional amendment voters approved Nov. 7.

        The amendment allows the General Assembly to meet annually. For the last 150 years lawmakers have met every other year except when called into special session by the governor.

        “The important thing about this session,” said House Speaker Jody Richards, a Bowling Green Democrat, “is that it will really give us time to do our jobs.

        “I don't think we'll pass more than 25 or 30 bills,” said Mr. Richards, noting that in the regular session earlier this year more than 1,000 bills were passed.

        So far just 12 bills have been prefiled by lawmakers. In past years that number has been in the hundreds.

        The constitutional amendment stipulates that when lawmakers meet in odd-numbered years, it would take a three-fifths majority of the House and Senate for any money to be spent or taxes to be raised or cut.

        Lawmakers said that should keep down some of the disharmony and rancor that often accompanies budget battles in Frankfort.

        “I think we will talk about taxes, but I think what we might do is appoint a task force that will study comprehensive tax reform and then bring a bill for consideration in 2002,” Mr. Callahan said.

        Some prefiled bills call for a cut in the state's property tax on automobiles. Because voters approved a 1998 constitutional amendment giving lawmakers authority to cut the tax, legislators will be under pressure to cut at least the 30 percent that goes to the state.

        The rest of the money goes back to local governments and schools and is not likely to be eliminated, lawmakers have said.

        Even if money items are not on the agenda, lawmakers could still spar because Democrats control the House while Republicans control the Senate.

        That led to lots of bickering and gridlock during the 2000 session, something both parties have said they want to avoid in 2001.

        “I think everybody is anx ious to get along, and I think we will,” said Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Charlie Borders, a Russell Republican.

        But Mr. Borders said the Republicans will fight passage of the bill that would produce a deposit on bottles and other containers. The so-called “Bottle Bill” may be part of a legislative package dealing with mandatory garbage collection that Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat, has promoted.

        The centerpiece of the plan will be a proposal for mandatory trash pickup, meaning that every Kentucky household would be required to pay for garbage service.

        That's not uncommon in urban and suburban areas such as Northern Kentucky, but much of rural Kentucky is not served by trash collection.

        Another key component could be some form of tax on fast-food wrappers and disposable bottles and cans, sometimes called an “advance disposal fee.”

        The bottle bill, which would require a refundable deposit on bever age containers, probably will be handled separately through a proposed constitutional amendment putting the question to voters, said House Majority Leader Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat and longtime bottle-bill proponent.

        “I don't believe a tax or a deposit upon containers will have much success in the Senate,” Mr. Borders said.

        Even Mr. Richards said the garbage and bottle bills may not come up during the session.

        “I'm not convinced we'll see a bill, and if we do, it will be scaled down,” Mr. Richards said.

        Other topics the legislature is likely to deal with:

        • Workers comp. The legislature revamped the system four years ago at the urging of businesses, which have seen premiums and claims drop over that period.

        But coal miners have had difficulty collecting benefits for a breathing ailment called black lung. For that reason the bill could be tweaked, Mr. Richards said.

        “But if people try to take the workers comp system back to where it was before the reform,” Mr. Callahan said, “I think you'll see some strong resistance.”

        • Heating assistance. Because of the high price of heating oil, Mr. Richards said, he is likely to ask lawmakers to approve some money to help low-income Kentucky residents pay heating bills and purchase heating oil.

        Even though lawmakers want to resist “tinkering” with the budget “helping these folks through the winter is something we need to look at,” Mr. Richards said.

        The Associated Press contributed.



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