January 7, 2009

Can’t hardly wait

A look at the upcoming session of the General Assembly

State lawmakers are back in Frankfort this week to kick off the 2009 legislative session and already they are faced with an array of bills, from complex legislation dealing with taxes, education and the environment, to more trivial matters, like declaring burgoo the state dish.

In light of the state’s projected $456 million budget shortfall, it’s no surprise that a number of the proposed bills filed in advance of this session are aimed at generating revenue in the cash-strapped commonwealth.

One proposed measure that would help chip away at the deficit is another pitch to significantly raise the tax on cigarettes in Kentucky, which has the highest rate of smoking and lung cancer, yet one of the lowest tobacco taxes in the country.

“Of all the bills I filed, this is the most important,” says Rep. David Watkins, D-Henderson, sponsor of House Bill 189, which seeks to raise the cigarette tax from 30 cents to $1 per pack. (Gov. Steve Beshear also has recommended raising the tax on cigarettes to a buck a pack to raise much-needed revenue.)

Past attempts to hike Kentucky’s tobacco tax have faltered in the Republican-controlled Senate. But given the current economic crisis, Watkins and other supporters of the proposed increase say now is the time for those holdouts to concede.

Although Watkins projects the 70-cent cigarette tax increase could generate as much as $120 million by the end of the fiscal year, he admits the primary reason he proposed the measure was to improve the health of Kentuckians.

“It’s been shown if we can raise the price of cigarettes, it lowers the amount of consumption in young people and prevents a lot of them from ever getting addicted,” says Watkins, a physician elected to the House in 2007.

Watkins also is sponsoring legislation urging parents to have their daughters immunized against human papillomavirus (known commonly as HPV) while receiving other routine vaccinations. HPV — a sexually transmitted disease believed to cause most cases of cervical cancer — can be prevented by vaccination. Attempts to mandate the vaccine in other states have been controversial, however, which is why Watkins says his proposal would allow parents to refuse the immunization.

“I see this as a miracle vaccine that could prevent cancer in a good percentage of young ladies,” says Watkins. “Who wouldn’t be in favor of that?”

At least a dozen pre-filed bills deal with issues of health and safety, including a proposal to increase physical activity in public schools, as well as legislation to strengthen laws protecting bicyclists and pedestrians on the road.

In light of several accidents involving drivers striking cyclists in Louisville last year — including three fatalities — Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Jefferson, is pushing for tougher laws.

“We’ve had several fatalities and serious injuries in the past year where there were no charges pressed, even in cases when there were serious questions about whether the motorist was reckless,” says Wayne. “I think this [legislation] would help make sure motorists who are reckless or irresponsible are held accountable.”

If approved, this bill would allow officers to charge a driver who strikes a bicyclist or pedestrian with vehicular assault if there is evidence of reckless driving, even if the officer does not witness the accident.

And while Wayne is hopeful the bill will pass, he acknowledges the most pressing issue before the legislature is balancing the budget. “The main issue we are going to be wrestling with is money,” says Wayne, adding that there have been fewer pre-filed bills this year — 134 to be exact — compared to years past. “A lot of times people file bills that will cost money … No one in their right mind would do that right now unless it was an emergency,” he says.

Other bills state lawmakers will consider in the upcoming session include two proposals seeking to limit the use of cell phones while driving: one would prohibit all drivers from using a cell phone without a hands-free device, while the other is aimed at teenage drivers.

In a push to combat domestic violence, Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Jefferson, has proposed a bill that would enable abuse victims who are not married to or living with their abuser to seek an emergency protective order. More than 40 states have extended domestic violence laws to apply to dating couples; Kentucky lawmakers killed a similar proposal in 2008.

Several bills address environmental issues, including one aimed at prohibiting coal companies from dumping mining waste into waterways across the Bluegrass.

In addition to the many serious and sweeping changes proposed, no legislative session would be complete without a handful of lighthearted and bizarre bills. One such measure recommends naming the hearty meat stew better known as burgoo as one of the state’s signature dishes, joining the ranks of “Derby pies, hot browns and bourbon balls.” Another seeks to ban the sale of novelty lighters, meaning any lighter that “appears to be a toy, features a flashing light, or makes musical sounds.” And finally, there’s a bill requiring anyone who happens upon human remains during an archaeological dig to contact the proper authorities and to obtain a permit before keeping any such remains.