As temperatures in Kentucky slowly climb out of the polar abyss, so too will state lawmakers emerge from their districts and trek to Frankfort for the opening day of the 2014 regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly.
The session got underway Tuesday.
Kentucky legislators will have until the relatively balmy date of April 15 to craft a biennial state budget, which will be a difficult task: Amid one of the toughest economic outlooks in recent memory, legislators will be forced to grapple with funding priority issues like reinvesting in K-12 education and funding nearly $900 in teachers' pension liabilities.
Many people, from political observers to politicians themselves, have estimated that in order to fully fund these and other priorities, an additional $400 million to $1 billion (or more) in revenue must be raised to plug the gap in spending.
But the state expects only $250 million in additional revenue.
Although the budget will be the front and center issue, here's a glimpse at some other legislative priorities:
- Expanded gaming. Legislation filed in the House and the Senate would for the umpteenth time attempt to permit casino gambling in Kentucky. One of those efforts, filed by Rep. Larry Clark, D-Louisville, claims it would raise over $280 million in tax revenue, with 50 percent allocated for education. Senate President Robert Stivers has indicated he will not actively oppose such an effort, but has insisted that whatever process the issue takes must avoid political horse-trading or else he will fight it.
- Tax reform. Democratic and Republican leadership have been tight-lipped about what, if any, recommendations from the 2012 tax commission they would implement, with many lawmakers pooh-poohing the idea altogether due to a claimed lack of groundwork laid by Gov. Steve Beshear. House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President Robert Stivers—a Democrat and a Republican, respectively—have indicated that they are waiting to see what kind of tax reform elements are included in Beshear's budget before they step out on their own. On that note, Beshear himself has been tight-lipped, saying only that he doesn't want to raise taxes and intends to foster a business climate where corporations aren't overburdened. At the end of the day, even if every one of the tax commission's recommendations were to be magically enacted, it would yield about $600 million, and that's an extremely optimistic figure. Also, whatever shape tax reform might take, it will not touch the issue of corporate and personal tax subsidies, which cost the state over $1 billion annually.
- Raising the minimum wage. Designated House Bill 1, Stumbo introduced the idea last week as the House's primary legislative effort. The measure would raise the state's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10, mirroring a national effort by Democrats to do the same. It would also incorporate language from prior proposed legislation by Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, to establish pay equity for men and women. Currently, women earn about 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man performing the same job. House Republicans immediately pounced on the idea, decrying it as wealth redistribution, among other things.
- Anti-heroin efforts. An attempt to crack down on the heroin epidemic sweeping North and Eastern Kentucky, bipartisan legislation introduced by Sen. Katie Stine, R-Southgate, and Rep. John Tilley, D-Hopkinsville, aims to expand treatment efforts and to make overdose deaths a homicide charge in the event that sufficient evidence can link the dealer to the victim. A prior attempt at less expansive legislation filed last year by Stine was killed in the House due to concerns from criminal defense attorneys, but with support this time around from Attorney General Jack Conway, the bill's chances are greater than ever.
- Medical marijuana. Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, is expected to again introduce legislation to permit the medicinal use of cannabis in Kentucky. The topic will receive a hearing this week by the House Health and Welfare Committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville. The issue has even received some support by Stumbo, although it likely has a long way to go before it garners enough support to prove viable enough to pass.
- Eminent domain. Bills filed by Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, and Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, would seek to limit the scope of the state's eminent domain process to counteract the land acquisition of a controversial natural gas liquids pipeline.
- Local option sales tax. Supported by the mayors of Louisville and Lexington, LIFT (Local Investments for Transformation) would seek, by way of a ballot measure, to add a penny in sales taxes toward community projects. Critics of the proposal claims that such a consumption tax would unduly burden the working class to pay for unspecified projects.
- Pensions. The elephant in the room that threatens to trample every other issue due to its sheer weight. Last year, lawmakers approved legislation that would raise and recommend $100 million in revenue to shore up the annual $1 billion price tag attached to the chronically underfunded Kentucky Retirement Systems fund. To compound the problem, the head of the state's public school teachers' pension informed lawmakers that its underfunded system needs about $450 million over the next two years
Other things to watch for:
- The Dec. 9, 2013 SOAR (Shaping our Appalachian Region) summit generated plenty of ideas about moving Appalachia beyond a declining coal-based economy, but it will likely be up to lawmakers to push for projects or initiatives in that region to build on the initial promise of that event.
- A measure to restore voting rights for non-violent felons is being championed by Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, and has gained support from an unlikely source: Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. It remains to seen if Republicans will support the issue, and whether that support will be attached to rumored voter ID bill from Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown.