FRANKFORT ee" Anticlimactic it may have been, since the largest and stickiest issues on the table had been well disposed of earlier. But the scheduled final two days of this year’s legislative session did convene in Frankfort Thursday with a bit of uncertainty hanging over it ee" and some drama at the end.
The question going in: Would the House take up any of the bills that were still pending between chambers when the Legislature adjourned two weeks ago for its veto recess?
Three bills in particular were being talked about: An overall economic-incentive package aimed partly at luring a major NASCAR race to the state; a measure creating a River Bridges Authority (or some other mechanism) to oversee the massive Louisville project or other large bridge projects; and a bill to fund public defenders in Kentucky, who warn they may have to start turning away clients because of budget shortfalls.
With two working days left when lawmakers returned to Frankfort, the Senate and the governor took the position that those measures were important enough and near enough resolution for the Legislature to wrap up work on them and pass them before final adjournment.
The House had a different take. Earlier in the session, that chamber passed rules of operation that included a stipulation the final two ‘veto days’ of the session would be limited to just that: Considering overrides of any vetoes the governor might impose on passed legislation during the 10-day recess built into the schedule specifically for that purpose.
The Senate and the governor countered that rules of legislative procedure are suspended regularly for important and even minor matters, and they could and should be suspended in this case because of what they considered an urgent need to finish and sign those bills. The House pointed out that such a last-minute rush to pass bills has caused problems and confusion in past ee" including ‘stopping the clock’ at midnight and the lawsuits and litigation that resulted ee" and that the rule in question was designed specifically to prevent such hasty 11th-hour practices.
In the end, the House decided that the bills, while good ones, did not require immediate action, and chose not to take them up at this time.
And since neither the House nor Senate felt it was necessary to contest the one minor veto Gov. Beshear had imposed on a section of Road Plan language, the Legislature’s work for this year was over. Both chambers adjourned sine die before sundown Thursday, after using 29 of their allotted 30 days for this year’s session.
Despite this procedural difference in the final hours, all parties agreed that this year’s session was a highly productive one, notable for its spirit of harmony and bipartisan cooperation in the face of hard times.
In addition to passing a revenue package of targeted tobacco-and-alcohol taxes to help close a major budget shortfall, the session will be remembered for finally voting to eliminate the controversial CATS school-accountability testing program, replacing that test with something better able to track and compare individual student progress.
An ambitious Road Plan for Kentucky was passed and funded.
Other bills too will have their impact, either now or down the road:
*Drug diversion. SB 4 directs jail officials to screen inmates for drug use as soon as they are booked. Judges can then order outpatient drug counseling, while serious addicts can volunteer for inpatient treatment.
Those who complete a follow-up program and stay clean can have the felony wiped from their record.
*Penal code. Senate Joint Resolution 12 continues a study of the state’s criminal laws, putting it under the jurisdiction of the legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary.
*Personal services. SB 22 requires home health agencies and other personal service businesses to conduct criminal background checks on their employees and bans anyone convicted of abuse, drug crimes, or sex crimes from being hired.
*Flags. SB 33 requires all U.S. and Kentucky flags purchased by state and local governments to be made in the U.S.
*ATVs. House Bill 53 requires all-terrain vehicles to be titled, just as motor vehicles are.
* Local government pensions. HB 117 allows employers in the County Employees Retirement System to phase in their health care payments over 10 years, just as the state government does.
*Sex offenders. HB 315 bans convicted sex offenders from MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking sites where minors are allowed. It also requires them to register their e-mail addresses, screen names, and other online IDs with state authorities.
*Missed school days. HB 322 allows school districts to ask the Education Commissioner to waive 10 school days from the school calendar due to school closings caused by the winter ice storm and the windstorms caused by last fall’s Tropical Storm Ike.
*Gasoline tax. HB 374 sets the current gas tax of 22.5 cents per gallon as the new base, rather than allowing it to fall with gas prices on April 1. This will in part fund the ambitious statewide road contraction plan also passed this session.
*School athlete safety. HB 383 requires high school coaches to become certified in student safety. Beginning next school year, one certified coach must be present at every practice and game.
*Payday lending. HB 444 sets up a database to enforce the state’s two loan/$500 maximum on payday loans. The bill also puts a 10-year moratorium on new payday lending stores.
Although the 2009 regular session is now in the history books, already there is speculation that a special session may be needed later this year to deal with a projected continuing deficit in the budget for next fiscal year beginning July 1. Only a governor can call a special session, so that will be his call. Meanwhile the legislative interim resumes: The period between sessions when joint committees of the House and Senate meet monthly to study issues and prepare legislation for the next session.
Citizens can stay informed of legislative activity year-round by logging onto the Legislative Research Commission website at www.lrc.ky.gov . To find out when a committee meeting is scheduled, they can call the LRC toll-free Meeting Information Line at 800-633-9650.
Anyone wanting to share a comment or concerns with their legislator can call the toll-free Legislative Message Line at 800-372-7181, also year-round.
The next regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly will convene Jan. 5, 2010.