By John Cheves
[email protected] April 13, 2014
Above: Louisville NAACP president Raoul Cunningham, left, Sen. Jeff Hoover, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, Agriculture Commissioner James R. Comer and Rep. Jesse Crenshaw spoke in favor of restoring voting rights to felons during a Feb. 19 committee meeting at the Capitol Annex in Frankfort.
FRANKFORT — Several bills looked like slam dunks going into the 2014 General Assembly in January, with bipartisan support and advocacy groups rallying behind them. But as lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday for the final two days of the legislative session, some of those stuff shots might end up bouncing haplessly off the rim.
Take House Bill 70, a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the restoration of voting rights to felons convicted of nonviolent and nonsexual crimes.
For years, the Democratic-led House passed the bill and the Republican-led Senate killed it. But this time, a number of GOP politicians endorsed it, including U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who wields influence in the state Senate.
"I think, particularly for nonviolent crimes, we should try to reincorporate people back into society," Paul told a panel of state senators in February.
However, HB 70 is stuck in limbo with several other high-profile measures. The 2014 session could end with the gavel bang of their last-minute approval — or the silence of their demise.
"Sometimes good bills end up not passing for reasons that have nothing to do with what’s in the bill itself," said state Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, sponsor of HB 70.
"It can be political differences, and it can be inter-chamber rivalry, and it can be personal," Crenshaw said. "Sometimes legislators — those who have the power to decide what ultimately happens — become a little stubborn and say, ‘I’m just not going to do this.’ They dig in their heels. I can remember when the Senate was still controlled by Democrats, along with the House, and there were bills the Senate blocked that everyone had thought would just sail right on through. And that was with one party controlling everything."
Bills that remain wrapped in uncertainty with two legislative workdays left include:
■ HB 70, which the Senate amended to make it more restrictive. The Senate version would require felons to wait five years, with no misdemeanor or felony convictions during that time, before they could register to vote. The Senate version also would exclude felons with multiple prior offenses.
More than half of the 180,000 Kentuckians barred from voting because of a felony conviction would remain permanently disenfranchised under the Senate version, according to an analysis by the League of Women Voters of Kentucky. Crenshaw said he wouldn’t accept the bill in its present form.
"The decision lies in the Senate right now," he said. "I have communicated my wishes, and we have tried on the House side to get a conference committee established to negotiate on it. But what we’re hearing is that there is no interest in the Senate in moving forward."
■ HB 332, which would require a comprehensive rating system for early childhood education programs, including those at child care centers. The bill is required by the $44.3 million federal grant Kentucky was awarded in December through the Race to the Top initiative, to focus on children from birth to age 5.
Republicans object to the bill as the House approved it because they fear the state will be forced to pay for the rating system after the federal grant is spent. The bill is mired in a House-Senate conference committee that is trying to reach a compromise.
■ Senate Bill 5, the so-called "heroin bill." It would create more treatment beds for drug addicts while lengthening prison sentences for drug traffickers and making it easier to prosecute traffickers for homicide if their customers fatally overdosed.
A House committee made changes to the bill that some senators don’t like, such as adding a local option for needle-exchange programs for addicts. The bill waits on the House floor for a vote with 15 more amendments filed.
The sponsor, Sen. Katie Stine, R-Southgate, said her original bill already was a compromise that had won the support of Democrats such Attorney General Jack Conway and House Judiciary Committee chairman John Tilley of Hopkinsville.
"I am concerned about any further compromises," Stine said. "It’s time to act. In Kenton County, just since we passed the bill out of our own chamber, we’ve had 24 people die from overdoses. If this was a virus, we’d be calling in infectious disease specialists from around the world to unravel the mystery of what’s causing all these deaths."
■ SB 99, a telephone deregulation bill that would allow major carriers to drop many of their land-line phone customers in urban areas. It’s nicknamed "the AT&T bill" because that company helped write it and lobby for it.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, has pronounced the bill dead for the year, and it’s sitting on the House floor with hostile amendments waiting, such as a raft of consumer protections for phone customers and a statewide minimum-wage increase. But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, said last week that "it’s still alive."
"We’re still negotiating on it, we’re still working on it," Hornback said.
■ HB 31, known as the "eminent domain bill," which is aimed at preventing land seizures for the construction of the proposed Bluegrass Pipeline. It would specify that the owners of pipelines carrying natural gas liquids do not enjoy the right to condemn land through the use of eminent domain.
The House approved HB 31 on March 21 and sent it to the Senate, where it sits. Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, has expressed opposition to the bill because there is a lawsuit over the Bluegrass Pipeline’s right to seize land, and Stivers said he’s reluctant for the legislature to interfere in pending litigation.
■ HB 3, a response to the sexual harassment scandal that led to the resignation last year of state Rep. John Arnold Jr., D-Sturgis. Several legislative aides at the Capitol accused Arnold of inappropriately touching them and making crude comments. Arnold denied the allegations but surrendered his House seat.
HB 3 would require lawmakers to undergo training to discourage sexual harassment; establish a complaint process for legislative employees; and create a uniform pay schedule for all legislative employees, some of whom have enjoyed larger salaries and raises than others, sometimes without an easily explainable justification.
The bill never saw any action, but parts of it were spliced into other bills. Much of the sexual harassment language went into HB 28, which Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law last week. The legislative employees’ pay language was incorporated into HB 88, which has waited for a vote on the House floor for more than a month.
■ HB 2, which would expand and make permanent a scholarship program for students from the coal-producing counties who want to study at a college in the state’s coalfields. Stumbo, the House speaker, is the lead sponsor.
The state budget approved by legislators in March holds $2 million a year in coal severance funds for the program, enough for an estimated 500 scholarships. But the language authorizing the program has been sitting on the Senate floor since late March, and an amendment awaits that contains the language from SB 99, the AT&T bill, which Stumbo has criticized in the House.
■ HB 237, better-known as the state road plan.
The Senate version of HB 237 called for spending $3.67 billion on transportation projects over the next two years, while the House version would spend $3.92 billion. One reason for the difference: The Senate didn’t endorse the House’s proposed 1.5 cent-a-gallon increase in the state’s gas tax, which would boost the road fund.
Senate and House negotiators were working Friday on a possible compromise road plan, with hopes of presenting it to their colleagues Monday.
Lawmakers say they’ll be hard-pressed to address all of the bills sitting on their desks in the two workdays remaining, and to consider whether to override the flurry of vetoes Beshear issued late Friday.
The legislature did accomplish its most important job of passing a state budget, said Senate Minority Leader R.J. Palmer, D-Winchester.
"If we can get some of those other bills passed in the final days, like the felon voting bill and the heroin bill … we would move from a good session to great," Palmer said. "But no one gets everything they want. That’s just how the system works."
John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.