In less than a month, Kentucky lawmakers are back in Frankfort for a special session on redistricting, but there are no plans yet to resolve another issue facing the state.
There's been no movement on comprehensive tax reform since a commission chaired by Lieutenant Governor Jerry Abramson offered recommendations last fall. The group suggested raising the cigarette tax, expanding the sales tax, and allowing local governments to levy a sales tax on special projects.
Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo says modernizing the tax structure doesn't seem to be on anyone's agenda.
“I’ve never even spoke to Lieutenant Governor Abramson about the recommendations," Stumbo claims. "He’s never come by to explain to me and as far as I know he’s not been explaining them to other members of the general assembly, or very few members of the general assembly I would say.”
Stumbo says lawmakers are resistant to make tax changes because "somebody pays more and somebody pays less." Regardless, the House leader says tax reform must be accomplished. He says as the nation's economy grows, states continue to lag behind, and he blames that on tax structures that are not fully linked to the modern economy.
When Senator Mitch McConnell faces off against prospective general election opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes at this year’s Fancy Farm Picnic on Aug. 3, it will be the first time the Republican has squared off against his Democratic challenger this far in advance.
Director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Al Cross says McConnell had one such opportunity in his first bid for re-election, and didn’t take it.
“In 1989, looking ahead to 1990, Harvey Sloane, the Jefferson County Judge Executive was openly running against McConnell. And McConnell did not give him the opportunity of a face-off that far in advance," remembers Cross.
McConnell’s last opponent, Bruce Lunsford didn’t declare his candidacy until very late in the election cycle. Cross expects the showdown at Fancy Farm will be “no holds barred” with Grimes looking to energize the Democratic base, and McConnell linking Grimes with President Barack Obama.
Kentucky’s Lieutenant Governor says he may announce his intentions regarding a run for governor before or shortly after the August 3rd Fancy Farm Picnic. Jerry Abramson has served as Kentucky’s Lieutenant Governor since 2012 and previously served as Louisville Mayor for 21 years.
Abramson is one of a number of democrats discussing a run for the office including term limited Attorney General Jack Conway and former State Auditor Crit Luallen.
Abramson says current polls show he could win a race for Governor, but he’s undecided on whether or not to run.
“I’m going through this yes, no, up down,” said Abramson. “If you’re going to spend a year and a half hour to raise $15 million and once you win the question becomes can you really be a transformational public servant and make a significant difference in the future of Kentucky? That’s what I’m thinking through.”
This week, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear is expected to issue the date for a special session on redistricting. He met last week with legislative leaders to plan for the session, amid growing pressure to finish the task.
The state supreme court ruled the General Assembly’s first attempt at redrawing political boundaries unconstitutional. Two lawsuits have been filed seeking to speed up the process, and one calls for redistricting to be done by federal judges, but Governor Beshear says that’s not the way to go.
“You know, the courts are sort of divorced from the political setting and the legislature needs to take care of its own business and take care of its own districts and so, they’re gonna step up and do that," Beshear says.
The goal is for lawmakers to have a tentative agreement before they return to Frankfort to avoid a lengthy special session, which would cost taxpayers about $60,000 a day. It takes at least five days for a bill to work through Kentucky's legislative process, which means taxpayers would foot at least a $300,000 bill.
Federal subsidies to tobacco farmers in Kentucky and elsewhere will continue next year, even though a majority of U.S. Senators believe they should not. The Senate voted Thursday 52-44 to cut off the payments, but the measure required 60 votes for passage.
California Senator. Diane Feinstein led the effort to end taxpayer subsidies, suggesting that tobacco farmers, particularly in Kentucky, have done quite well over the past decade.
"A 2012 University of Illinois study found that productivity on Kentucky tobacco farms increased by 44% in the last ten years," asserted Feinstein. "At the same time, tobacco farmers are seeing some of their best pay days since the 2004 buyout began."
Feinstein argued the payments need to stop because tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the nation. Other critics claim the payments are too generous.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the measure’s defeat a big victory for tobacco growers. The commonwealth is the nation’s top burley tobacco producer.
As WKU prepares for budget cuts ahead of the next fiscal year, another Kentucky university is making plans ahead of its next budget.
The Eastern Kentucky University board of regents has approved a spending plan that includes a three-percent in-state undergraduate tuition increase and no raises for employees. The three-percent tuition hike is the maximum allowed by the Council on Postsecondary Education.
WKU President Gary Ransdell had asked the CPE for a five-percent undergraduate tuition increase, saying it was needed to help the school move forward without budget cuts.
Dr. Ransdell says WKU will now have to look at cuts that will include personnel reductions. WKU vice-presidents have given Ransdell preliminary plans for cuts in their departments.
The issue will be taken up by the school’s board of regents at their meeting in late June.
Researchers at the University of Kentucky are working on a new kind of project to combat the spread of bedbugs without the use of potentially harmful chemicals.
Entomology professor Mike Potter says the team will attempt to replicate a highly successful remedy used centuries ago in Eastern Europe that involves using kidney bean leaves.
“They found that they could sprinkle bean leaves on the floors of their dwellings and capture bedbugs. The mechanism by which that occurs is through these little plant hairs called trichomes which is a natural defense that plants have to deter attacks by certain types of plant feeding insects," Potter explains.
Scientists at the University of Kentucky and the University of California, Irvine are now developing materials that mimic the trichomes on the bean leaves.
The group’s research findings have been published online in the Journal of the Royal Science interface.
Despite a short legislative session that’s expected to focus on pension reforms, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday says lawmakers may consider some key education measures, too.
“I think you’re going to see a number of possible bills coming out following up from the Newtown incident.”
Holliday says lawmakers may also be interested in increasing funding for Kentucky’s Center for School Safety, which saw dramatic cuts to its budget in 2009.
He also expects the General Assembly to take up legislation that would allow the education department to move forward with reforming its teacher evaluation system. The new system would likely measure teacher performance based partly on student test scores, which has been controversial among some in education.