Monday, February 18, 2002

Proposals thus far dance around larger constitutional issues

Push to rewrite law of the land

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — Dr. Thomas Clark, Kentucky's historian laureate, doesn't think much of the supreme law of the commonwealth, its 1891 Constitution.

        Dr. Clark is among those who think the entire document should be scrapped and a convention called to draft a new constitution. Kentucky's legislators cannot be counted among those revisionists.

        The 38 amendments approved during the life of the Constitution, and the 38 amendments offered by the General Assembly and rejected by the voters, reflect far more tinkering than overhaul.

        The batch of constitutional amendments pending before the current legislative session shows similarly narrow perspectives.

        One amendment, passed during the 2001 legislative session, is assured a spot on the November ballot. It is especially obscure and would validate the family court system that has been in place in some parts of Kentucky for 10 years.

        Only four amendments can be placed before the voters at any one time. And the referendum can only take place on the November general election ballot in even-numbered years. Even so, the legislature has presented the maximum of four amendments only once — 1990.

        Two of the current proposals are aimed at fixing some perceived damage done just two years ago. One proposal would repeal annual legislative sessions, the first of which was held in 2001. Another would cut from 60 days to 40 days the time that could be spent in the even-year sessions of the legislature.

        Many seem targeted toward satisfying a particular political constituency rather than a larger policy goal. There are five proposals to modify the general requirement in the Constitution that all property must be taxed, which was enacted to end special exemptions and breaks rampant at the time and seem to be the aim of some of the latest round of amendments.

        One would give a property tax break to former prisoners of war or winners of the Distinguished Service Cross. Another would create a larger exemption for elderly homeowners, who already enjoy some special treatment under the 1981 Homestead Exemption.

        Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, would let the owners of unmined minerals escape any property tax at all on their holdings.

        Rep. Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has again offered an amendment that would create a referendum on whether Kentuckians want container deposit legislation — a bottle bill.

        Rep. Jodie Haydon, D-Bardstown, originally proposed an amendment to eliminate the obscure office of constable, but has said he will withdraw it.

        Sen. Marshall Long, D-Shelbyville, wants to change the procedure for territory to secede from one county and join another, largely to accommodate a small group of people who live in an inaccessible area of Henry County.

        Sen. Dick Roeding, D-Lakeside Park, has a proposal to overturn the original constitutional intent on lawsuits altogether. The Constitution specifically prohibits the General Assembly from setting limits on awards. Roeding would let the legislature set limits, long a goal of insurance companies and large corporations.

        Two proposed amendments involve topics with much broader policy implications.

        Sen. Charlie Borders, R-Grayson, would repeal many of the arcane provisions in the 263 sections of the Constitution that deal with regulation of corporations. The Constitution was written during a time when corporate interests were running amok, imposing their will on the government through intimidation, bribery and other means.

        Borders' amendment would leave it to the legislature to set guidelines for corporate regulations, which could prove to be a modern day test of the legislature's ability to balance business and public interest.

        Perhaps the most fundamental change in the conduct of Kentucky government would come from Rep. Kevin Bratcher's proposal to introduce initiatives, referendums and recalls to the state.

        Initiatives allow a petition of voters to place proposed statutes and even constitutional amendments directly on the ballot, bypassing the legislative branches of state and local governments. The best example might be in the dozens of proposals that crowd the California ballot.

        Referendums involve voter review and potential repeal of statutes and ordinances passed by legislative bodies.

        A recall would let voters oust public officeholders before the end of their terms of office.


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