Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

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December 29, 2011

ELLIS COLUMN: Get ready for another bumpy ride

ASHLAND — Ready or not, they’re coming back to town.  At noon Tuesday, lawmakers will convene a General Assembly confronting major problems and which may prove very contentious. Their plates will be full in a budget session with little money in an election year.

They’ll be welcomed by a freshly re-elected governor, only the third in Kentucky’s history to win a second term. Steve Beshear vanquished his Republican nemesis, Senate President David Williams, by an impressive 22 points, but Williams remains the leader of the Republican Senate.

In his first term, Beshear wasn’t able to push through his signature goal of expanded gambling but he promises to try again. He’s again calling for increasing the high school drop-out age and he’s hinting he’ll propose tax reform and “want(s) to make sure we produce more revenue.” He’s working with Attorney General Jack Conway and House Speaker Greg Stumbo on legislation to address Kentucky’s problems with prescription painkillers but he’s not sure how to address the epidemic use of pseudoephedrine in homemade and toxic methamphetamine labs.

“We’re going to have a bold agenda for the next four years,” Beshear told reporters Wednesday. But he told them the coming budget will be among the most difficult of any during his time in office — so it won’t be easy for a governor who was more cautious than bold in his first term to be bold in his second.

Lawmakers have their own agendas — roughly 138 of them. Topping most of them is re-election. Re-drawing state and federal legislative districts — with one chamber controlled by Democrats and the other by Republicans — won’t be easy and there’s danger re-districting will become entangled with other issues. Lawmakers like to bring some bacon back home, especially in election years, and that won’t be easy with a budget likely to include more funding cuts.

That will be complicated by the request of the University of Pikeville to join the state’s public higher education system and share state funding. That poses problems for the other universities which for the first time had “sworn in blood” (as one university representative put it) to support a unified legislative agenda rather than working behind the scenes with local legislators to gain a budget advantage. It’ll be a neat trick for the legislature or Beshear to justify adding Pikeville to the state system  while telling the others their funding has to be reduced to pay for it.

Sen. Tom Jensen, R-London, and Rep. Linda Belcher, D-Shepherdsville, are determined to do something about those meth labs. Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, and Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, want changes in the state’s child protection services which haven’t done a very good job of protecting some children. Local pharmacies and rural hospitals — not to mention Republican senators — aren’t pleased so far with the implementation of Medicaid managed care. Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, Rep. Bill Farmer, R-Lexington, and Williams want tax reform — and they’re less patient than Beshear. The Department of Education needs money to implement the last round of education reform, new testing systems and, if Beshear’s bill passes, alternative classrooms for uninterested students who now have to stay in school longer. Lawmakers are supposed to make an increased contribution to the pension system. Senate budget chairman Bob Leeper, I-Paducah, thinks the budget starts out at least $330 million in the hole. There is no federal stimulus money available this time. Oh and there’s that little question about expanded gambling — and all the political pitfalls it poses.

Happy New Year! It may not stay happy for Kentucky politicians for all that long after Tuesday.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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