By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — The first week of the 2014 General Assembly might have been written off as uneventful but for the accidental firing of a lawmaker’s pistol in her Capitol office.
Fortunately, no one was injured and there were no charges after Rep. Leslie Combs accidentally discharged her pistol while unloading it. But the incident provided fodder for jokes in a week when no legislation passed either chamber.
On the evening of the first day of the 60-day budget session, Gov. Steve Beshear told lawmakers he would not stand by while continued cuts or flat funding put in jeopardy gains the commonwealth has made in education. He said he’d make “harmful” cuts to other programs if he had to in order to “re-invest” in education.
But he also told lawmakers he’ll offer specific proposals on tax reform and ask them to pass a constitutional amendment to allow voters to vote on the question of casino gambling. Such amendments have been proposed by a member of Republican Senate leadership — Caucus Chair Dan Seum of Louisville — and Democratic House Leadership — Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark of Louisville.
Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he “sees a way forward” on gambling if the Senate will first act on a “clean amendment,” by which he means wording which says nothing in the state constitution prevents lawmakers from authorizing expanded gambling but without any guarantee for a specific industry such as thoroughbred racing.
Gambling and tax reform — as well as a budget with little extra money for education or increased costs in programs like Medicaid — will succeed or fail against a very political backdrop. All 100 House seats and 19 of 38 Senate seats will be on the fall ballot and Republicans think they have a shot at taking over the House which Democrats now control 54-46.
Cynics might be forgiven for thinking the election might have something to do with the respective chambers’ top legislative priorities. Republican Senate President Robert Stivers wants a constitutional amendment allowing a committee of lawmakers the authority to overturn executive orders by the governor.
Republicans have cried foul over Gov. Steve Beshear’s implementation of a health care exchange and expansion of Medicaid under provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act by executive order.
Meanwhile, Stumbo is calling for an increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour in increments over three years.
Coincidentally or not, those two ideas seem to mesh with campaign rhetoric in the race for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Mitch McConnell which will be decided this year. McConnell has portrayed himself as the number one opponent of the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” while his likely Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is campaigning on issues of “income equity.”
Also on the session’s first day, the chairman of a House committee looking into sexual harassment allegations against former Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, told the full House the committee had no standing to continue its work once Arnold resigned his seat in September.
There also appeared to be some movement on a few issues which have in the past succeeded in one chamber but failed in the other. Bills were filed to create a statewide smoking ban; to extend domestic violence protection to unmarried couples; and to allow the medical use of marijuana.
Republican Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer, widely believed to be considering a race for governor, came out in support of the domestic violence legislation which has previously passed the House but got nowhere in the Republican Senate.
Democrat Rep. Susan Westrom again introduced a statewide smoking ban bill in the House. She has a Republican co-sponsor this time, Rep. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville. Republican Sen. Julie Denton, also of Louisville, joined them for a rally promoting the legislation this week as well.
The House Health and Welfare Committee heard from parents of children who suffer from a variety of seizure-related illnesses and are seeking legalization of medical uses for substances contained in marijuana. Democratic Sen. Perry Clark of Louisville has introduced such legislation numerous times in the Republican-controlled Senate, but it’s never gone anywhere.
So far there is no legislation in the House, but Speaker Stumbo has said he’s “now open” to hearing about the medical benefits of marijuana. He said he’s not yet convinced but he has constituents in his district who are parents of autistic children and who’ve asked him to consider such legislation.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.