FRANKFORT — Surely this isn’t the way it was supposed to work?
Short or odd-year sessions of the Kentucky General Assembly were supposedly designed to clean up bills passed in regular even-year budget sessions or to address issues which arose since the last session. And they were supposed to diminish the number of special sessions.
If Wednesday’s events at the state capitol are an indication, the idea isn’t working.
The day started with an effort by the Democratic-controlled House to change a bill passed by the Republican Senate to “set up a framework” to regulate the cultivation of hemp if the federal government allows its cultivation.
It ended with constitutional debates as the Democratic House majority overruled Republican Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, who said the House was violating the law by passing a bill to change state pensions without the legally required actuarial study.
In between, the House apparently killed the hemp bill, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, and pushed by Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer.
The Democratic leadership also ruled that “an act dealing with taxation” – a bill to use proceeds from instant racing and expanded lottery games to fund the pension system – did not require a three-fifths vote, even though Section 36 of the state Constitution says any revenue or expenditure measure passed in a short session must secure a three-fifths majority.
But House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, relied on an obscure 1892 court ruling to say that since the bill still required approval by the Senate, Wednesday’s vote did not represent “final passage” and therefore didn’t require a three-fifths majority.
This is how Hoover put it after a meeting of party leaders at the Speaker’s podium ended: “We are right, but we aren’t going to win.”
The day began with an 8 a.m. meeting of the House Agriculture Committee where Chairman Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, said the committee would hear testimony on Hornback’s hemp bill. But he made clear there would be no vote on the bill; instead, the committee would take up a committee substitute which would call for a study of hemp’s economic appeal.
But after testimony from both supporters and opponents, it became clear McKee’s committee – including Democrats – was prepared to pass Hornback’s bill.
Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, made a motion to approve Hornback’s bill and several committee members shouted out seconds. But McKee ruled the motion out of order and recessed the committee until after the day’s House session.
Later during a recess of House floor session, McKee called a meeting of the committee at his desk whereupon he simply adjourned the meeting, apparently bringing to an end House consideration of the bill.
The House then took up its version of a pension reform bill previously passed by the Senate.
Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, would move new employees into a hybrid, cash-balance plan and end cost of living adjustments while preserving current benefits for existing employees and retirees.
But the key provision of the bill is to fully fund the annually required contribution (ARC) and the Senate bill provides no way to pay the ARC.
The House re-wrote the bill to preserve defined benefits for all employees, current and future; preserve COLAs so long as they are pre-funded; try to bind future legislatures into having to make the ARC payment; and allow the legislature to amend benefits going forward for employees hired after July 1, 2013.
As the House prepared to vote, Hoover quoted a statute which requires any change to pension benefits to include an actuarial study before the bill is passed out of committee, something the House bill didn’t have. But Stumbo cited another court case which said the General Assembly establishes its own rules and the courts are reluctant to interfere, thus ruling Hoover’s objection out of order.
During that debate, Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, pointed out the pension bill passed by the Senate was passed on a date in advance of its own actuarial study. Hoover asked if that meant there was no bill before the House, but while Stumbo agreed the Senate bill was “technically” in error, he again ruled against Hoover.
Ultimately, the bill passed 55-45 along party lines.
Stumbo then asked for passage of the funding bill, arguing that it offered an opportunity to pass “a vehicle” back to the Senate as the first step in negotiating an agreement between the two chambers.
On top of that, Stumbo said, it was the best way to avoid a special session to deal with the pension problem and urged members, even those who opposed the measure, to vote for it to keep the process going and allow the two chambers to work out an agreement.
Hoover offered a floor amendment which would have required Gov. Steve Beshear to cut personal services contracts by $93 million and over three years reduce personnel costs by around $70 million. That would fund the pension system, Hoover said, and add back $25 million to the now empty school textbook fund within three years.
But Hoover’s amendment was voted down.
The House then passed the revenue measure – 52-47, with three Democrats, Fitz Steele, Rick Nelson and Bob Damron voting against it.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said the vote was unconstitutional because it didn’t get 60 votes.
Ironically, earlier in the day, the Senate State Government Committee approved a bill by Sen. Bob Leeper, I-Paducah, to offer voters an amendment reversing the public’s decision in 2000 to approve annual sessions.
That bill now goes to the Senate floor.