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By Brian Orms

April 7, 2010

No country for good bills

Kentucky’s progressives weigh in on Frankfort’s failure

Now that the 2010 regular session is nearly over, the difference between the Kentucky state legislature and the writing staff of “Lost” has become painfully obvious: One is a show about time-travel, bloated plot lines, half-baked science and induces regular and frustrated head-scratching, whereas the other airs Tuesdays on ABC.

Of the paltry 55 bills produced by the general assembly this session and signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear, virtually none of them address the commonwealth’s most dire problems — measures to expand health care access to children, strengthen anti-domestic violence laws, reduce pollution from surface-top mining, and (most dire of all) adequately balancing Kentucky’s $1.5 billion budgetary shortfall without cannibalizing essential social services have all failed to reach the governor’s desk this year.

With only two days remaining on the legislative calendar, and a host of good bills hanging in the balance, Kentucky’s contingent of progressive politicians are largely disappointed with what they feel to be another wasted 60 days in Frankfort.

“We did very poorly,” admits Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, on behalf of the legislature. “It’s been … what’s the old saying? Slow as molasses in winter … I don’t have much memory of anything good happening this session, because we generally hold the important stuff until the very end, as part of the horse trading that goes on behind closed doors.”

By “important stuff,” Stein of course means the state budget, aka House Bill 290, whose current 369-page incarnation — depending on which chamber gets their way — will either 1) bankrupt the state by spending borrowed money on construction projects, or 2) screw over the state’s poor, elderly and sick in a desperate attempt to stop the hemorrhaging. A true “lose-lose” scenario, if ever there was one.

To be fair, H.B. 290 will expand Meals-on-Wheels coverage, increase funding for state social-worker protections, and result in a few other nominal positives. However, Stein says she doesn’t care for either option, and it’s easy to see why: House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-35, champions a version of the budget that calls for increasing the state’s debt via $2 billion in construction spending (mainly in Democratic districts, no less), while Senate President David Williams, R-16, favors slashing education and human services spending nearly 4 percent over the next two years, thereby edging Kentucky ever closer to that post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” scenario we’re all dying to experience.

“What we should’ve done,” Stein continues, “is listen to Jim Wayne. He has a very good tax reform proposal out there that should be looked at.”

Stein is referring to Rep. Jim Wayne. D-35, sponsor of House Bill 13, which would establish a progressive tax scale and, according to Kentucky Legislative Resource Council estimates, would do more to alleviate the budget crisis than H.B. 290 while providing a $97 million tax cut for 350,000 working-class families every year.

“Unfortunately,” says Stein, “(anti-tax demagogue) Grover Norquist has everyone scared to death that he’s going to have a press conference about you if you support tax reform, saying you want to raise taxes on everybody.”

This lack of political will, as Wayne suggests, shouldn’t be surprising. The Louisville representative says there was some interest in his tax reform bill, H.B. 13, at the beginning of the session, but the interest quickly faded in lieu of electoral concern.

“What happened was we have 43 Democrats up for re-election,” Wayne says. “When you have an election year, the leaders don’t want their constituents thinking they’re going to raise their taxes. So they get scared.”

Wayne says the House’s spending approach — which claims to create nearly 25,000 jobs — will result in Kentucky having one of the highest state debts in the nation. It’s a scenario he’d like to avoid, but given the climate in Frankfort and the impending end of the session, mediocrity will have to do.

“I don’t think they have it within them to be leaders,” Wayne says. “They’re merely managers. (Then-Gov.) Paul Patton took many of the proposals I had to develop a progressive tax system, but then the sex scandal happened and he couldn’t do anything. These leaders all have political capital, but they’re not using it, in my estimation, to create a vision of how you can stabilize the state economy and to build a coalition to get the legislative job done. It just doesn’t happen here.”

Louisville Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-35, agrees, but feels the Republican leadership — specifically their recent unveiling of a “secret” budget compromise — is more to blame.

“We’ve been negotiating with them for how long?” Meeks says. “And then for them to produce a compromised budget now, and for what? What sense does it make to hold on to a budget proposal when all we’ve been doing is trying to create a budget? This game they have is doing nothing but hurting Kentuckians.”

While Meeks says he’s proud to vote for a House budget that doesn’t slash education, Medicaid and other human services funding, he thinks any serious attempt to fix Kentucky’s broken revenues system simply cannot be addressed during the regular session due to political pressures. He goes so far as to advocate creating a task force dealing solely with the issue of tax reform.

That was precisely what Wayne and fellow Reps. Harry Moberly Jr., D-81, and Bill Farmer, R-88, did. Yet none of their disparate tax reform proposals gained the necessary traction needed to prevent Frankfort’s nightmare gridlock form reoccurring this time around: Farmer dropped out, and everyone continued to ignore Wayne.

The same forces of inertia even felled Stumbo’s “starboat” legislation, the anti-domestic violence “Amanda’s Bill,” which he claimed was a victim to ongoing budgetary debates despite the efforts of anti-choice Republicans — namely Sen. Tom Jensen, R-21 — who stripped the bill of so many

essential provisions that its passage would’ve been useless anyway.

Pragmatists will note that even as Frankfort passed the buck on the very problems they’re elected to solve, the session wasn’t without its minor victories.

“House Bill 70 passed the house with strong bipartisan support, and we now have the votes for it on the Senate floor and in committee. That’s huge,” says Greg Capillo, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, about legislation to restore voting rights for ex-felons. “Last year totally felt like it was going to be the year, and then it wasn’t; so did this year. I don’t want to put any timelines on it, but we are so ridiculously close on that one I can taste it.”

Stein, Wayne and Meeks are pretty much resigned to coming back for a special session to finalize the budget, which assumes (as they have) Frankfort won’t be able to make its mind up by April 15. Until then, the legislators will be focusing on other pursuits.

“We have a baseball team here, the Lexington Legends,” says Stein. “I decompress with baseball season. I tell people we can’t talk about Frankfort for two months after the session. And if I don’t get my baseball, well, let’s not think about it.”