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January 27, 2010

Trimming the fat

Savoring the tastier morsels of Frankfort’s legislative sausage

The 2010 regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly has convened for only four weeks and already House Bill 176 looks lonely.

That’s because H.B. 176, which aims to steer federal money toward low-performing (and non-chartered) public schools, remains the only bill signed into law so far this year.

This isn’t to say Frankfort and its 138 legislators are devoid of energy or ideas at the moment; to the contrary, reams of new laws and amendments are circulating through the bowels of the capitol annex building at a dizzying rate (perhaps a result of the impending bill filing deadline, which as of press time is Tuesday, Jan. 26). Although the vast majority of those bills often test the limits of human logic, a small number of them actually attempt that rare feat of addressing a societal, environmental, criminal or fiscal problem.

Since these kinds of bills are usually few and far between, they are — like diamonds sprinkled over horseshit — far easier to spot.

Like S.B. 49. Sponsored by Louisville Rep. Gerald Neal, D-33, this bill would provide identification cards for indignant persons at $2 a pop and essentially streamline the pre-existing, lengthy and expensive paper-procurement process that keeps the homeless at society’s economic margins, in shelters and on the streets.

“Many of our folks do not have any kind of picture ID,” says Marlene Gordon, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. Without proper identification, Gordon says the homeless wind up spending between $50-$75 to obtain birth certificates, Social Security cards and other errant personal papers in order to apply for a job or obtain sustainable housing.

“Under the current system, many wind up languishing in the shelters, which the shelters simply can’t afford,” Gordon says. “Without an ID, our clients aren’t even allowed into a state or federal building to petition for themselves.”

Gordon would also like to see support for H.B. 166, filed by Reps. Susan Westrom, D-79, and Robert Damron, D-39. This legislation seeks to curb predatory lending practices in the commonwealth by prohibiting debt adjustors from charging borrowers exorbitant miscellaneous fees — the very practice that fueled the 2008 economic downturn, cost Kentucky an estimated $158 million and currently puts 250 households into foreclosure in Jefferson County every month — among other “debtor-first” measures.

Another bill to watch is H.B. 30, filed by Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-44. Aimed at further protecting victims of domestic violence, this legislation has gotten far less press than Amanda’s Bill — so named after Amanda Ross, who was murdered outside her Lexington apartment in September, allegedly gunned down by ex-fiancé Steve Nunn. Amanda’s Bill would allow judges to order GPS monitoring devices for perpetrators of domestic violence, whereas H.B. 30 would allow abuse victims to seek emergency protective orders against dating partners, which currently is not allowed under state law.

“We’ve been trying to get this passed for the last three years,” says Sherry Currens, executive director of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association. “Under current law, you have to be either married, formerly married, living together, formerly living together or have a child in common to file an EPO.”

This creates a gap in protection, leaving two groups (college-age and single, older women) under-protected and outside the purview of legal recourse.

“They’re basically sitting ducks,” Currens says. “If you remember, Amanda Ross was only able to prove that (she and Steve Nunn) were living together because she had a piece of mail with their names on it. Without that she would’ve never received that protective order. The (GPS) bracelet wouldn’t have been available to her. Amanda’s Bill is a great tool, but it can only work if the laws are strong. There are other things we can do as well.”

Currens hopes to see a package of anti-domestic violence legislation passed during this session — namely the aforementioned bill coupled with a measure introduced by Rep. Mike Denham, D-70, that would make it a class-D felony for perpetrators to trespass upon a women’s shelter as well as increase the longevity of EPOs up to the date of a court hearing.

Moving from one tragedy to another, the fact that the so-called Stream-Saver Bill is absent from the 2010 session has some environmentalists in the state concerned. Originally introduced in 2007 by Rep. Don Pasley, D-73, the perennial measure was doomed to a premature death last year courtesy of Democratic Rep. Jim Gooch’s Natural Resources Committee. Had it progressed out of committee and been passed, the bill would’ve severely prohibited coal companies from contaminating streams adjacent to mountaintop-removal sites with toxic compounds (like arsenic and manganese) generated by the process.

“Are we gonna have to have more destruction for the next five years before we get around to finally passing this?” asks Teri Blanton, spokeswoman for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, adding that she is worried that the current “self-regulation” recently adopted by coal companies will be ignored.

“The way I see it, coal companies operated outside of the law for a hundred years,” Blanton says. “To think that it would just regulate itself is a pipe dream.”

Of course, funding for these and other bills has been made difficult by the state’s projected $1.5 billion budget shortfall: It costs money, for example, to create independent, third-party auditors to oversee potentially predatory mortgage lending, or to cover the cost of paperwork necessitated by the creation of new felonies.

While partisan fallout over Gov. Steve Beshear’s go-it-alone, all-or-nothing stance on fixing Kentucky’s budgetary woes via expanded gambling has yet to settle, some — like Louisville Rep. Jim Wayne, D-35 — see it as an opportunity for bi-partisan tax reform.

“He’s made a budget with phantom money,” says Wayne. “With no new Obama money coming in this year, it’ll be bloody. Severe cuts will be made to schools, higher tuition rates, cuts into the Medicaid budget — cuts to services (that benefit) the most fragile in our state.”

Wayne says he has been asked by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-95, to combine his tax reform-minded H.B. 13 with a similar proposal by Bill Farmer, R-88 — although how much Stumbo’s interest in tax-reform is motivated by playing cover for Beshear remains to be seen.

“Obviously, you do not want to increase taxes on working people,” Wayne says. “But when you talk about tax reform, some will try to dismiss it all as a broad-based increase and jump on any buzz words. I think (Stumbo’s) committed to working on this issue with us.” 

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