Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 21, 2014

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Amendment would reduce number of legislative days

The Independent

ASHLAND — Members of the Kentucky Senate want to turn back the hands of time by returning to the days when the Kentucky General Assembly met for only 60 days every two years. Whether members of the House of Representatives will agree to place the proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot remains to be seen.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, is the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 195, which sailed through the Senate Wednesday by a bipartisan vote of 34-3.

Under Stivers’s plan, lawmakers would meet for 45 days in even-numbered yeas instead of the current 60 days. In odd numbered years, the General Assembly would meet for only five days, but that could be extended to a maximum of 15 days by a vote of legislators. Legislators current meet for 30 days in odd-numbered years.

Stivers said his proposal would save money and encourage more people to run for legislative seats. Lawmakers now meet for 90 days every two years, which takes them away from jobs and their families for months at a time, he said.

“There are people in this chamber, as we stand here and sit here today, that have thought about leaving or are leaving because we are no longer a citizen legislature,” said Stivers.

Under the proposed timetable, lawmakers in even-numbered years would convene for five days in early January for organizational matters and to start introducing legislation. They would take an extended break until early February, when they would reconvene for the final 40 days lasting until April 15.

Sessions in even-numbered years now last 60 days with the approval of a two-year budget being the major item of business. Having 15 fewer days to approve a budget and other legislation may seem difficult until one realizes that 90 percent of what the General Assembly does occurs in the final two or three days of the 60-day session. Nothing controversial or significant occurs until after the deadline for filing for office  in the final week of January. Thus, not being in session until after the filng deadline would not change the status quo all that much.

Stivers estimates the shortened legislative sessions would save several millions of dollars each year. He has emphasized that his proposal would not infringe on a governor’s ability to call lawmakers into special sessions.

Prior to 2000, the General Assembly did only meet in regular session every other year, and those sessions were limited to 60 legislative days. But on Nov. 7, 2000, Kentucky voters agreed to start the new century by having the legislature meet for 60 days in even-numbered years and 30 days in odd-numbered years.

Proponents of the annual sessions argued that the 60-day sessions are so dominated by the need to approve a two-year budget that there is little time for dealing with other issues that have little or nothing to do with the budget. The 30-day sessions in odd-numbered years would give legislators time to deal with such issues.

We agreed with proponents of the amendment and recommended that voters approve it. They did, but the vote was close, with 53.33 percent of voters supporting the change, and 47.67 percent opposing it. Since it was a presidential election year, more people voted that November than in most Kentucky elections.

While we are not ready to support going back to essentially having the General Assembly meet every other year, we must say that the annual sessions have not fulfilled their promise and for the most part have been disappointing.  Because legislators have failed several times to approve a budget in the 60-day sessions, the 30-day session have sometimes been dominated by budget issues. In addition, the constant partisan bickering between the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives have so dominated several of the 30-day sessions that little of significance was accomplished. Stivers is right when he says  some of the 30-day sessions have been a waste of money, but that’s the fault of legislative leaders and not the shorter sessions themselves.

The vote in 2000 was close. If voters are give another chance to cast their views on annual sessions, it will be interesting to see how things have changed.