In-Depth: 2014 Legislative Session Preview

Jan 6, 2014

The Kentucky General Assembly kicks off its 2014 session Tuesday.

Budget Woes

With demand for state dollars on the rise and only modest growth predicted for Kentucky’s General Fund, it’s no surprise that the extra $500M analysts expect the state to generate in revenue over the next budget cycle is already spoken for.

With Medicaid, prisons, and debt repayment consuming more and more of the pie, public schools and universities have absorbed many of the cuts. In an end-of-the-year press conference in 2013, Gov. Steve Beshear made it clear that he wants to see at least some of that funding restored, even if it means shifting the burden elsewhere.

"We're going to find a way to make something work here in spite of some short revenues that we have. We're going to have some deficits and we're going to have to make some cuts, but I'm determined also to try to reinvest in education as much as we can and if that means cutting something else, then that's probably what we'll have to do," the governor told reporters.

If action isn’t taken, Education Commissioner Terry Holliday has estimated that between 1,000 to 2,000 teachers and other public school employees could be out of a job by the end of the year.

Expanded Gambling

With few lawmakers eager to raise taxes, legislators plan to once again explore the possibility of expanded gaming in the state as a source of new revenue. Beshear weighed in on that issue as well, sounding a note of optimism despite the issue’s lackluster track record in previous sessions.

"I'm encouraged that in the House, Rep. Larry Clark, who's been a long proponent for expanded gaming, is once again ready to push forward that issue. I'm also encouraged that Sen. Dan Seum in the Senate, a Republican, is interested in this issue and willing to step forward to start working on some progress on that issue," Beshear said.

Other potential revenue generators on the table include tax reform and a second push to give cities the power to implement a local options sales tax. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties, among others, are expected to once again lobby for the option, which would allow cities to add a temporary 1 percent sales tax to fund special taxpayer-approved projects.

Combating Heroin

Meanwhile, lawmakers are looking to halt an epidemic that is costing the state in dollars and lives. With heroin-related overdose deaths in Kentucky increasing from 22 in 2011 to 143 in 2012, Sen. Katie Stine is sponsoring a bill that would crack down on users and dealers, in much the same way recent legislation addressed prescription pill abuse.

"The bill targets principally two groups: the trafficker, who needs to be run out of Kentucky or locked up, and the addict, who has broken the law but has created their own personal prison that is worse than any jail the state could design," Stine said during a press conference.

The legislation would allow state prosecutors to more easily pursue homicide charges against heroin dealers whose customers die from an overdose and impose longer mandatory prison sentences.

Legal Disputes

Finally, the General Assembly will also have a chance to set the record straight on two controversial legal issues. The first is a set of court challenges that could have dramatic effects on public library funding.

State library officials are at odds with a group of taxpayers over whether state law grants them the power to raise taxes without a voter-approved petition. Suits lodged in Campbell and Kenton counties claimed that petition-created libraries have been illegally raising rates for decades. If circuit judge rulings siding with the taxpayers are allowed to stand, the challenge could spawn similar challenges across the state.

"It would take those libraries formed by petition and possibly ballot back to their original tax rates as of 1979, which would slash budgets as much as 70 percent," says former Kentucky Library Association President Lisa Rice.

Another issue legislators could weigh in on: the potential use of eminent domain by a company that wants to build a natural gas liquids pipeline through Central Kentucky. The controversial project, which would touch 13 Kentucky counties, has already prompted a number of protests.

Bill Lawson with Williams appeared on KET’s Kentucky Tonight last September, arguing, "Given this vast quantity of natural gas liquids that are coming online in the northeast, it's important that we take them to the best marketplace, where they can be consumed and used and turned into jobs and new manufacturing opportunities."

But critics want to see the legislature rewrite eminent domain law so that private companies like Williams could not use it, at least without stricter oversight by the state.

The 2014 session gets underway Tuesday and runs through March.