Sunday, December 31, 2000
Politics, disaster top news
By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press
FRANKFORT Politics and disaster dominated Kentucky news in 2000.
Republican control of the state Senate, unprecedented in Kentucky history; the vice presidential debate in Danville; and the Martin County coal slurry spill that still mars parts of eastern Kentucky were deemed the top three stories of the year by a panel of newspaper and broadcast editors for the Associated Press.
The GOP gained control of the Senate in 1999, when Sens. Dan Seum of Louisville and then Bob Leeper of Paducah changed party registrations. When the 2000 General Assembly convened, Republican David Williams presided and GOP members ran all the committees. Democrats, used to a lifetime of control, sat by quietly.
Republicans crowed about their success in killing a tax-reform package proposed by Democratic Gov. Paul Patton then abandoned their own no-tax pledge to embrace a double-digit increase in long distance telephone taxes. The Republicans also allowed legislation through that increased legislative pensions and expanded local-option election possibilities for alcohol sales.
Shortly after the debates, 250 million gallons of coal slurry with the consistency of melted ice cream poured out of the Martin County Coal Corp. impoundment and into tributaries of the Big Sandy River. The spill became an environmental disaster. The cleanup continued nearly around-the-clock for weeks, costing the company millions of dollars and prompting a review of other slurry impoundments.
The Ten Commandments continued to be a big story for Kentucky. In 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Kentucky law that directed posting of the Ten Commandments on classroom walls was unconstitutional. Yet in 2000, schools and counties were again seeking ways to post the Decalogue in public buildings.
The American Civil Liberties Union won a court injunction to force the removal of the commandments in Pulaski and McCreary counties and in the Harlan schools. As of year's end, the counties and the schools had replaced the Decalogue and the ACLU was back in court seeking a contempt ruling.
The splashy wedding on Oct. 27 of Lt. Gov. Steve Henry and former Miss America Heather French Henry at the Cathedral of the Assumption was more notorious for its price tag than its pomp. The state auditor investigated to determine if state funds were used for the wedding.
The tobacco industry, already wracked by huge quota cuts and an uncertain future, was thrown in further disarray when Philip-Morris U.S.A. announced it would contract to buy burley directly from farmers and bypass the warehouse auction system. Farmers were initially pleased with the prices they got, but others warned the practice could lead to the end of the price support and quota systems.
A freak winter tornado caused millions of dollars in damages and some serious injuries in Owensboro, leading local authorities to re-examine their emergency response systems.
Kentucky started as a battleground in the presidential race but became a bystander by early fall. Republicans George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, frequent visitors, won the state by a landslide.
Another result of the November election: voters approved annual sessions of the Kentucky General Assembly. The sessions start Tuesday.
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