Monday, March 19, 2007

Senate and House arm-wrestle over Boni Bill

Many loose ends await legislators on the last day
Loftus, Tom. Louisville Courier-Journal, March 11, 2007, pg. A1.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — If Kentucky lawmakers hope the 2007 legislative session will be remembered as productive, they have a long, hard day ahead of them tomorrow.

That's the last scheduled day to pass bills, and the House and Senate have resolved only a handful of major issues.

"It's like I anticipated," said Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, a legislative veteran. "Not a whole lot is likely to get done."

The Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House have passed their priority bills. But, with few exceptions, they haven't passed each other's.

Among the major issues still pending: bailing out the financially troubled state retirement funds, making workplaces safer for coal miners and social workers, and funding construction projects vetoed last year by Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

Not only was there little progress last week on key bills, but hostility between the two chambers boiled over late Thursday.

House Democrats accused Senate President David Williams of blocking House bills and trying to force the House to accept the Senate's plan for shoring up the retirement systems.

Williams countered that the House lacked the political courage to pass the Senate's retirement system bail-out plan. Both chambers agree that the system needs more money, but the Senate wants to reduce retirement benefits for future employees, an issue House leaders say needs more study.

Fletcher said Friday that he may call a special session if lawmakers cannot agree on stabilizing the pension plans.

By week's end a few bills had cleared both chambers — among them an increase in the minimum wage, from the current $5.15 an hour to $7.25 by July 2009, and generous incentives to Ford Motor Co. to keep nearly 8,000 jobs at its two plants in Jefferson County.

And for the most part tempers had cooled.

"It won't be successful as it could have been if we don't finish some crucial matters," Williams, R-Burkesville, told reporters Friday. "But everything is still out there, everything can be accomplished that we'd hoped to accomplish."

Williams on Wednesday threatened to block many House bills that called for new spending — including the measure to authorize borrowing for the vetoed construction projects — if the House didn't accept the Senate plan for stabilizing the retirement funds.

But on Friday he resisted saying which bills he believed must pass for the session to be a success.

"I'm not going to set that defining sort of list of bills," he said. "There are a lot of important bills. I believe that we'll come to a successful conclusion."

House Speaker Jody Richards, a Bowling Green Democrat who is seeking his party's nomination for governor in the May 22 primary, said that "when you look at the work product of this House, I think you have to give it an 'A.'"

The session's success, Richards said, "is going to depend on what the Senate passes that we sent it."

The major stumbling block remains the Senate's plan to issue bonds that would raise more than $800 million to stabilize the retirement systems of state workers and teachers, and to limit benefits of future state workers.

Under the Senate proposal, workers hired after July 1, 2008, would participate in a "hybrid" pension plan. The state would contribute a smaller amount than it does now to a traditional "defined benefit" plan, while giving workers the option of participating in a 401(k)-type plan to which both employee and employer would contribute.

The concern is that lower-paid employees might opt out of the voluntary plan, thus raising questions about whether they could save enough for retirement.

Richards repeated Friday that the House can accept the borrowing. But he said any change to future employee benefits must be given more study and approved in 2008.

"We will act on something to try to get the bond part of the pension plan enacted," Richards said.
But the House is adamant, he said, in its opposition to changing benefits for future employees in the current session.

Also unresolved is spending. The Senate has held back on approving the projects Fletcher vetoed last year — a list that includes $6 million for the Louisville Zoo's Glacier Run exhibit.

And neither chamber has acted on Fletcher's surplus spending proposal, which includes $38 million to improve the Kentucky Horse Park in time for the 2010 World Equestrian Games, as well as funding for local government grants and water systems in Southern Kentucky to help cope with the federal decision to lower the water level of Lake Cumberland to make repairs to Wolf Creek Dam.

Fletcher said those spending items also might be put on the agenda of any special session.

Also to be resolved are differences in House Bill 361 — the "Boni Frederick Bill," which is aimed at improving social worker safety and is named for the social-services aide slain on the job last year.

The Senate approved the bill Friday — but only after $4.8 million in state funding had been stripped from the measure. Key House members want the money restored.

Differences also must be resolved on bills strengthening mine- safety rules, helping counties cope with costs of holding state inmates in county jails, improving math and science teaching, and allowing tax breaks for developers of the Museum Plaza project in Louisville.

Many other bills are dead, or appear to have only a slight chance for passage.

They include measures to ban public universities and other state agencies from providing health insurance for domestic partners of employees; to allow trees to be cut so billboards are more visible; to permit juries to award damages for the loss of companionship; to require women seeking abortions to get information about the risks of the procedure in face-to-face meetings; and to require immunizations of girls and young women against a virus that causes cervical cancer.

Under the current schedule, midnight tomorrow is the deadline for passing bills. But that could change: Legislative leaders could, for example, decide to add to this week's schedule one or both of the days set aside for later this month to deal with any Fletcher vetoes.

But only three legislative days remain, and the session must end by March 30.


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