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Sun March 25, 2012
Lawmakers In Final Stretch Of Lackluster Session
FRANKFORT, Ky. -- A contentious month-long debate over political redistricting left scant time for Kentucky lawmakers to tackle a long list of bills, many of which will likely fall to the wayside in the final days of the 2012 legislative session.
So far, four of the 786 bills filed this year have been signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear. That includes a bill redrawing the state's legislative districts that the Kentucky Supreme Court has already declared unconstitutional.
With six days remaining, lawmakers have largely turned their attention to negotiating final terms of a two-year, $19.5 billion state budget.
"I honestly have to say not a lot has been accomplished," said House Republican Whip Danny Ford of Mount Vernon. "Our time is very short. I hope that we can get a budget. I think the people expect that of us, and I hope we can meet those expectations."
Budget negotiators from the House and Senate are scheduled to begin talks Monday to hammer out final details of the budget that calls for massive cuts to agencies across state government. They hope to have an agreement before the end of the week.
Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said he is "very concerned" about the tight deadline lawmakers are working under to get the budget completed. He said Senate and House negotiators have to resolve all their differences by late Wednesday night.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he's confident the House and Senate will reach an agreement.
"I don't think we'll reach an impasse," he said.
The fate of most bills are in question, including one that would provide some Appalachian students with financial grants of up to $6,000 a year to help them earn degrees from private colleges in the mountain region.
The proposal is a spinoff from an earlier recommendation to turn the private University of Pikeville into a public university to boost educational levels and spur the economy in central Appalachia. Widespread opposition led to that idea being withdrawn.
The proposed scholarships would be paid for using revenue from an existing tax on mined coal. Proponents believe generating more college graduates would make the impoverished central Appalachian region more appealing to businesses looking to build or relocate.
The Senate stripped money for that program out of the budget. Stumbo said the House will press to put it back, saying he sees that scholarship program as one of the more important proposals of the legislative session.
"What you have to remember is times are tough, and there's not a lot of money in the budget," Stumbo said. "And when there's no extra money, it's difficult to have many major pieces of legislation, but most of them require some form of funding."
The House and Senate still are working on legislation intended to curb meth production and to crack down on unscrupulous doctors who overprescribe painkillers. That, too, is one of the top priorities of the legislative session, but lawmakers have disagreed on how to proceed.
The meth proposal would limit the amount of cold and allergy medications that people can buy in an attempt to limit access to pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in meth. That proposal has been staunchly opposed by consumer groups.
The Amish are hoping lawmakers will pass legislation that would allow them to forgo a longstanding traffic safety measure in the name of religious freedom.
A bill awaiting passage would allow the Amish to use strips of reflective tape on the backs of their horse-drawn buggies rather than bright orange triangles some object to. The Amish argue that God directs their safety, even on the roads. They say the bright color of the signs calls attention to them, which is against their religion, and the triangular shape represents the Trinity, which they're not allowed to flaunt.
State Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray, filed the legislation because several Amish men in his western Kentucky district were jailed for refusing to pay fines for not using the orange signs. They have appealed their convictions to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which has not yet ruled.
The bill has cleared the Senate and is awaiting a floor vote in the House.
Another bill important to retired prosecutors would have special privileges to carry concealed weapons anywhere in the state under a measure that has passed the House.
Democratic state Rep. Bob Damron of Nicholasville still is pressing for a bill that extends to commonwealth's attorneys and county attorneys the same right that already has been given to retired judges. The measure is intended to allow retired prosecutors to defend themselves if attacked, even inside the state's courthouses.
Kentucky already allows people to carry concealed weapons if they have permits to do so. Damron's measure would allow retired prosecutors to carry them into restricted areas where the general population wouldn't be permitted to carry guns.
Lawmakers also have been rushing to get legislation through to provide sales tax relief for victims of the March 2 tornadoes that caused massive damage across Kentucky.
Rep. Will Stacy, D-West Liberty, is championing the measure. His eastern Kentucky district was especially hard hit. Most of West Liberty's downtown was demolished by a twister.
That bill would provide a rebate of the state's 6 percent sales tax on materials used to rebuild houses, business buildings and other structures in the counties where the owners' losses occurred. The owners would have to show receipts and proof of losses from their insurance companies or the Federal Emergency Management Agency in order to get reimbursed by the Revenue Cabinet.
Lawmakers also are attempting to pass a bill that would require vans that carry 15 or fewer passengers to have seat belts. That measure is intended to strengthen Kentucky's seat-belt laws two years after an Interstate 65 crash that claimed the lives of 10 people in a 15-passenger van.