With this year's legislative session over, a look into lobbying spending in Kentucky shows big money is still a major player in Frankfort.
During the first two months of the this year's session, lobbyists spent $4.2 million to influence lawmakers on bills. The Legislative Ethics Commission says that's a 10 percent increase on the amount spent in the first two months of the last short session, which was in 2011.
Full spending reports won't be out for at least another month, but so far two lobbying groups stand out from the rest: Altria Client Services and Century Aluminum. Both spent more than $80,000 this January and February. Altria lobbied for a change to tobacco taxes, which passed. Century lobbied for a bill to let aluminum smelters buy power on the open market. It did not pass.
Other big spenders include the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky League of Cities.
Actress Ashley Judd announced on Twitter Wednesday that she will not run for U.S. Senate in 2014. She had been rumored to be considering a run against Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell.
In a series of posts, the Kentucky native and current Tennessee resident said "After serious and thorough contemplation, I realize that my responsibilities & energy at this time need to be focused on my family. Regretfully, I am currently unable to consider a campaign for the Senate."
"I have spoken to so many Kentuckians over these last few months who expressed their desire for a fighter for the people & new leader. While that won't be me at this time, I will continue to work... as hard as I can to ensure the needs of Kentucky families are met by returning this Senate seat to whom it rightfully belongs: the people & their needs, dreams, and great potential. Thanks for even considering me as that person & know how much I love our Commonwealth."
It's likely that with Judd's announcement there will be increased attention on Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a potential Senate challenger many establishment Democrats favored over Judd in the first place.
Kentucky legislative leaders say they're proud of the 2013, with legislators having accomplished pension reforms, cleaned up other bills and passed others dealing with hemp, special taxing district and military voting.
Many of the legislature's top priorities were passed in the 30-day session, although most of them were hatched as last minutes deals in the waning days of the session.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo said the 2013 session may have been his proudest in more than a decade.
"I think that history will not have seen the chaotic events of the last day but it should record that this was a very successful session," he said.
Senate President Robert Stivers says the success of the session doesn't rest on any one person's shoulders, but collectively on the legislature.
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear doesn't know if he will allow hemp legislation to become law. In a last-minute deal, House and Senate leaders agreed Tuesday night on a compromise bill to license farmers to grow hemp. Licensing would be done by the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, which is under the control of the state agriculture department. Beshear told WKU Public Radio he can't say yet if he will veto the legislation or sign it into law.
"It was like 11:45 last night and we didn't have a copy of it, so I haven't really seen it yet," explained Beshear. "We're going to take a good objective look at it. I'll talk with state police and see it this bill strike a better balance."
Law enforcement has been against legalizing industrial hemp because the crop closely resembles marijuana. Police fear it could hamper eradication efforts.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has announced that he won't pursue expanding the state's Medicaid program to help cover the uninsured as part of the federal Affordable Care Act.
Haslam told a joint session of state lawmakers Wednesday that he decided not to do that because he prefers a third option to use federal money to subsidize private insurance. The federal government hasn't accepted that proposal.
Expanding TennCare, the state's Medicaid program, had been estimated to cover roughly 140,000 of Tennessee's nearly 1 million uninsured residents and bring in $1.4 billion in federal money.
Haslam is among the last of the Republican governors to declare a decision on expansion. Both the health care program and President Barack Obama are widely unpopular in the highly Republican state.
Kentucky's legislative leaders have passed two bills to shore up the state's underfunded pension systems, effectively staving off a special session on the issue.
The new plan would reduce a personal tax credit of $20 to $10, generating roughly 33 million in revenue that would go to General Fund, but lawmakers would use for pensions. It would also use revenue from technical changes in the state's tax code, as well as money from federal tax changes.
Overall, the plan would generate $96 million in the 2015 fiscal year and $100 million in 2016 fiscal year.
In a news conference with legislative leaders after the bill passed, Governor Steve Beshear said the process will work as a template for other states.
"This is a good solution to a thorny problem. A solution that other states around the country will be looking at as they look at options to solve their own crises," Beshear said.
A bill requiring prompt pay for health care providers participating in Kentucky's Medicaid managed-care system is heading to the governor's desk—but it could be vetoed.
The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Greg Stumbo and would move disputes between providers and managed care organizations to the Department of Insurance to be settled.
Many Medicaid managed-care providers providers over late or non-existent payments from the MCOs for the services they did, repeatedly telling lawmakers their problems.
The House passed the legislature in February and the Senate OKed it on Monday.
But the bill isn't favored by the MCOs and the Cabinet for Health and Family services, which currently hears disputes, has concerns too, leading some to believe Gov. Steve Beshear will veto it. And if it is vetoed, Stumbo said he'll make a larger priority in 2014.
A Christians-only health care plan would be allowed to resume operations in Kentucky under a measure approved by the House on Tuesday.
The House passed the measure 88-8 on Tuesday, sending it back to the Senate for final passage.
The proposal would exempt the Medi-Share ministry from state insurance regulations. A Franklin County circuit judge ordered the ministry to shut down last year at the Kentucky Insurance Department's request. The bill in its current form would require members to sign a notice acknowledging they're aware they may not have their claims paid.
The plan resembles secular insurance in some ways but only allows participation by people who pledge to live Christian lives with no smoking, drinking, using drugs or having sex outside of marriage.
The Kentucky House will vote Tuesday whether to override Governor Steve Beshear's veto of the so-called religious freedom bill.
The measure allows Kentuckians to ignore laws that put an undue burden on their religious beliefs. Critics of the bill say it undermines fairness laws in a handful of cities and would legalize discrimination. But supporters of the bill say it only strengthens previous laws that protect religious rights.
Many House Democrats supported the bill when it first came up for a vote, though the decision to consider the veto was more contentious when taken up in a Democratic caucus meeting Monday. Speaker Greg Stumbo expects the override to go through, but he's not sure how strong the support will be.
"But it will be called for a vote, I don't know, I quit counting this morning," Stumbo said Monday.
Senate leaders say they will also vote to override the veto.
Lawmakers have a deal in the works to shore up the financially troubled pension plan for government retirees.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Monday the proposal will be presented privately to lawmakers and then released publicly.
Gov. Steve Beshear is expected to personally present the offer to House Democrats Monday afternoon.
Restoring solvency to the pension system, which has a $33 billion unfunded liability, has been divisive for the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-led House that have been working on the issue since the Legislature convened in January.
The Senate has been insisting on a 401(k)-like retirement plan for new employees - a move the House opposes. And the House has pushed a plan that would use money from the lottery and horse tracks to generate more money for pensions.