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February 17, 2006

Under the big top in Frankfort

State lawmakers are converging on Frankfort for what some observers hail as the greatest show on Earth — or at least the greatest circus in politics: the reliably irregular regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly. And this year’s convergence has a cacophony of conflicts playing in the background.

Gov. Fletcher, hobbled by charges that his administration illegally rewarded political allies with legally protected merit-system jobs, has plummeted in public opinion polls. The silence of Sen. Mitch McConnell, Godfather of the statewide Republican revitalization, is an unmistakable kiss of death for his handpicked golden boy. A court’s recent expansion of Democrat Attorney General Greg Stumbo’s access to electronic messages is fueling Democrats’ hopes that the grand jury investigating the case may indict Fletcher.

Meanwhile, McConnell appears to be grooming First District U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield for a gubernatorial run. (Disclosure: I interviewed for a staff position with Whitfield a decade ago.) Whitfield, a personable, soft-spoken and scandal-free representative, has considerable crossover appeal. His dilemma is whether to trade his seat in Congress, where credit and blame are shared widely, for the Governor’s mansion, where, as Fletcher has learned, accountability is concentrated under an often harsh laser-like spotlight.

For this session, Democrats control the state House and Republicans dominate the Senate, where a protracted court battle over the still-vacant 37th District seat (Dana Seum Stephenson vs. Virginia L. Woodward) remains rancorous, unresolved and presumably destined for a special election.

Expanded gaming is the big-ticket issue to watch this session. The smart money says Kentucky’s ailing horseracing industry may finally get enough traction for a sporting chance to permit slot machines at racetracks. House leaders say they won’t support the measure without the Governor’s blessing.

Other bills likely to generate spirited debate focus on illegal immigrants (backbone of the farm economy), public displays of the Ten Commandments, public education relating to intelligent design, medical malpractice reform and prevailing wage. Let the games begin!