Monday, March 19, 2007

Williams, you need to open your mind to visitation centers - they have worked in other states

Break in session leaves budget items in limbo
Biesk, Joe. Kentucky Post, March 13, 2007, pg. A6.

A $28 million appropriation for improvements to the Kentucky Horse Park was left in the lurch Monday when lawmakers adjourned without reaching an agreement on a number of major construction projects.

The money was to be used to build an outdoor stadium in preparation for the 2010 World Equestrian Games. A proposal to dole out about $25 million in grants to help southern Kentucky communities deal with the effects of lowering Lake Cumberland also was not settled when the legislature adjourned for a two-week break."It's a precarious situation," said House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green.

Also not moving forward: money for a new dorm and dining hall at Northern Kentucky University and a bill that would extend tax breaks for Newport on the Levee.

Both the House and Senate were busy amid a flurry of activity Monday, the last day before a scheduled two-week break. The General Assembly was scheduled to return for two days on March 26 to consider any of Gov. Ernie Fletcher's vetoes or deal with other legislative matters.

By law, the legislature may not work beyond March 30; however, Fletcher has threatened to call lawmakers back for a special session later this year. Fletcher wants legislators to act on a Senate plan to overhaul the state's pension system and a variety of other spending proposals.

In a separate proposal, the legislature cleared a variety of tax breaks for projects throughout the state, including the proposed $465 million Museum Plaza project along the Louisville riverfront.

But the Senate did not approve a bill that would have given Newport on the Levee and other tourist attractions an additional six years to earn a state tax rebate, said state Rep. Jon Draud, R-Crestview Hills.

A plan to spend $9 million at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport so it could capture a matching federal grant to relocate the runway involved in the failed takeoff and crash of Comair Flight 5191 last summer, in which 49 people were killed, also cleared the Senate. A similar proposal had already cleared the House.

Senate President David Williams said the Senate inserted the extra spending in hopes of avoiding a special legislative session.

"If we don't pass these things, the governor is going to call us back," Williams said.

It was the second consecutive year lawmakers would leave spending matters vulnerable to Fletcher's veto. A plan to reinstate about $370 million in projects -- including millions at state universities and colleges -- that Fletcher slashed from the budget last year remained in legislative limbo. That includes $24.5 million for a new dorm and dining hall at Northern Kentucky University.

Whether that plan would be approved likely depended on the fate of the Senate pension plan, Williams said.

Democrats and Republicans in the Senate approved a plan last week in which the state would sell more than $800 million in bonds to help out the financially troubled state pension system.

Without legislative intervention, Williams has said, the plan would likely go broke by 2022 -- leaving the state with a $2 billion annual pension obligation.

Current employees and retirees would not face any changes in their pension benefits, but a key provision of the Senate plan would limit future employees' benefits. Instead of receiving traditional pensions, future employees would have a "hybrid" plan that includes a mixture of defined benefits and investments.

Richards has said he favors the bond issue but does not support changes in employee benefits.

Richards said he thinks the bill to restore funding for the university projects was being used as a bargaining chip by the Senate. Richards said he doesn't know whether the measure will pass this session, even though House and Senate leaders had an agreement.

"We don't feel like we should have to deal on it a second time," Richards said.

Another high-profile proposal that remained unresolved was legislation aimed at better protecting state social workers from on-the-job dangers. House and Senate lawmakers were trying to resolve differences in the versions passed by each chamber.

The move stems from last year's death of Henderson social worker Boni Frederick who was stabbed and beaten when she took an infant to his mother's house for a visit last October.

One sticking point appeared to be House language to create neutral locations for supervised visits between birth parents and their abused or neglected children.

Williams said such visitation centers would simply "create more targets" among workers.

Richards said lawmakers would to try to hammer out a deal on the so-called "Boni Bill."

Nevertheless, Fletcher said he thought there was enough time on the legislative clock for further agreement.

"I think it's not over till it's over," Fletcher said.


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