Kentucky Lawmakers Still Wrestling With Redistricting

Dec 30, 2012

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Legislative leaders are at odds on whether to postpone the divisive issue of redistricting for another year to avoid gumming up an upcoming session already chock-full of hefty issues, including how to fix a $30 billion shortfall in a pension system for government retirees.

Incoming Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said lawmakers aren't rushed to redraw boundaries around legislative districts because the next round of elections isn't until 2014. But House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, wants it done as quickly as possible after lawmakers convene Jan. 8.

"I think it would be prudent to really consider not injecting internal politics into the situation," Stivers said. "There is no pressing need."

Stivers' biggest concern is that redistricting could overshadow all other issues. Stumbo fears delaying redistricting could allow it to be used as a political bargaining chip on other matters.

"I'm not going to be a part of holding redistricting over somebody's head to vote on something else," Stumbo said. "We're not going to do that."

The last legislative redistricting effort ended in political turmoil that made its way to the state Supreme Court. Justices concluded the new legislative districts were not balanced by population and had to be redrawn to comply with the "one person, one vote" mandate in federal and state law.

Redistricting is supposed to occur every 10 years to account for population changes found by the U.S. Census Bureau. Kentucky's overall population grew from 4 million to 4.3 million, requiring a major reconfiguration of legislative districts to make them nearly the same size.

Stivers said shelving redistricting until 2014 would give lawmakers more time to work on other major issues, including shoring up the pension system.

The Pew Center on the States recommended issuing bonds to cover a $33 billion unfunded liability. That proposal has received a lukewarm response at a time when government debt has become an overriding political issue. A legislative task force studying the pension crisis rejected the recommendation while at the same time calling for full funding for all the state's retirement plans. The task force also suggested repealing cost-of-living increases for new retirees and moving workers to a hybrid plan that blends defined benefits with defined contributions.

When lawmakers return to Frankfort, all options will likely be rehashed.

"It's not a political issue," Stivers said. "It's just a reality that we've got to deal with."

Gov. Steve Beshear also wants lawmakers to consider a couple of options that could generate additional money: reforming the state's tax code and legalizing casino-style gambling. Both could be hard sells in Kentucky's split Legislature, where Republicans control the Senate and Democrats run the House.

"I think we owe it to the people of the commonwealth to come up with a real solution," Beshear told reporters in a year-end press conference. "So let's identify where money is going to come from to fund the pension system the way it should be."

Stivers has pledged to have an open dialogue with Democratic leaders to resolve major issues facing Kentucky. He said he considers the need to shore up a financially strained Medicaid program as the biggest issue in the upcoming session.

Stumbo is pressing another issue as the biggest facing the Legislature. He wants to hold accountable more than 1,200 special taxing districts that spend some $2.7 billion a year.

The issue beat out pension reform, tax reform and a proposed constitutional amendment on gambling for the designation of House Bill 1, which is reserved for the biggest issues facing the state.

Taxing districts, which collect money to operate everything from rural fire departments to libraries, have proliferated across Kentucky over the past 50 years with little accountability. Stumbo said creating a stronger system of oversight is a critical issue.

Stumbo has abandoned his position that legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to legalize gambling in Kentucky start in the Senate. Beshear hopes the departure of former Senate President David Williams, a gambling opponent, will improve the chances of getting an amendment through the Legislature.

Williams resigned in November to become a circuit judge in southern Kentucky. Stivers was selected as Williams' replacement.

Beshear has said he hopes lawmakers may approve a constitutional amendment after they convene in January. If lawmakers do so, the measure would have to be placed on the ballot in 2014 for Kentucky voters to ratify or reject. The Senate voted down a gambling proposal earlier this year, the latest defeat for what has proved to be a divisive issue in the Bible-belt state.

Despite a long history of wagering on horses, Kentucky has never allowed casinos. And many lawmakers were reluctant to change that, knowing they may face disapproving constituents in coming legislative elections.

Proponents have said Kentucky could collect more than $250 million in one-time license fees by allowing casinos to open. Taxing them, they contend, could generate more than $300 million a year for government programs and services.

Stivers said the gambling issue seems to be stirring no excitement among lawmakers.

"There's just not any discussion of the issue," he said.