Lawmakers convened the 2012 session of the General Assembly on Tuesday and prepared to tackle a litany of divisive issues including legislative and congressional redistricting and a renewed push to allow casino-style gambling in Kentucky.
Throw in the crafting of a lean two-year budget that will likely require further cuts to government agencies and services and lawmakers are certain to face a fiery get-together that will last into April.
“Redistricting is going to be the dominating topic we’re going to be concentrating on initially,” said House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook. “ We’re hoping to have that completed and out of the way within the first two weeks.”
Gavels fell in the House and Senate shortly after noon on Tuesday signaling the start of the legislative session. One of the first actions was the filing of a proposal that would redraw boundary lines around the state’s legislative and congressional districts.
Always divisive, redistricting occurs every 10 years to account for population changes found in the U.S. Census. In Kentucky, lawmakers have sole discretion in changing boundary lines.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said redrawing the political boundaries “ is probably one of the most contentious issues the legislature deals with.”
“We need to move on it as quickly as possible, get it behind us, and just go on,” he said. “ You’re going to have a lot of people upset about it. Population shifts mean that people move out of districts they’re comfortable with and into districts that they may not be comfortable with. That’s just what the federal courts say we have to do, so we have to do it.”
Senate Republican Floor Leader Robert Stivers of Manchester said he expects his chamber to move “as judiciously as possible” on a bill that already has been filed, but it will undergo changes.
“We’re still working on it,” Stivers said. “We still have a few decisions left; not a lot.”
Sen. Damon Thayer, the Georgetown Republican who chairs the State and Local Government Committee that will be first to vote on the Senate’s plan, said “a few little tweaks” remain.
“We’d like to resolve it as fast as possible,” Thayer said. “We’re Day One here, and we’ve got to some time.”
When that’s resolved, lawmakers will focus fully on drafting the budget, which has proven to be challenging in the past for a legislature that has a Democratic majority in the House and a Republican majority in the Senate. Over the past decade, they’ve repeatedly adjourned without having adopted a budget, forcing special sessions to continue negotiations.
Gov. Steve Beshear has warned that the upcoming budget cycle could be the “most challenging” yet. The lingering doldrums have triggered $1 billion in revenue shortfalls over the past four years. And with federal stimulus money used up and no sentiment for a tax increase, lawmakers will have to slash spending again.
Senate President David Williams said budget negotiations could be tough at a time when cash infusions are needed for the state’s education system, pension funds, Medicaid program and transportation projects including the proposed Ohio River bridges at Louisville.
“We have serious and daunting problems in the state of Kentucky financially,” he said.
Stumbo told reporters that he believes the House could approve a proposal to allow voters a say in whether to expand gambling opportunities beyond horse races, lotteries and charitable bingo games.
“ I think it could pass pretty easily,” Stumbo said.
Beshear, who favors casino style gambling in the state, said he expects a proposal to be filed in the Senate within days of the start of the legislative session. Beshear has been pushing the gambling issue for four years, but so far lawmakers have been unwilling to consent.
Beshear said Kentucky is losing hundreds of millions of dollars to neighboring states that allow casino-style gambling. He said Kentucky could recapture some of that money by offering the same kinds of gambling here.
“We have a lot of challenges that we need to address in this session, and it seems that some people only want to talk about gambling, when they know that gambling will not solve any problems in the next 18 months and that many of us are convinced that it won’t ever solve any problems,” Williams said.
In past legislative sessions, the gambling debate has been rancorous with opponents arguing that casino-style games prey on the poor and could spawn more crime in the state.
While Kentucky has a long history of betting on horses, the Bible Belt state has a longstanding constitutional ban on casino- style gambling. Beshear wants lawmakers to approve a proposed constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot to be ratified or rejected by voters. Thayer said he has been in discussions with Beshear about a proposal that could be introduced in the Senate.
Thayer, a gambling proponent, said he hasn’t agreed to be the primary sponsor of such an amendment.
“I told him I needed some time to talk to my caucus, and that’s what I intend to do tomorrow,” he said.
State Rep. Mike Harmon, RDanville, said the gambling issue could be politically explosive for House lawmakers who face elections this year. All 100 House seats are up for grabs, though a handful of lawmakers have said they won’t seek re-election and others could end up unopposed.
“If we as legislators vote in favor of a constitutional amendment for expanding gaming, that means we support expanded gaming,” he said.
Lawmakers will also see pushes to allow charter schools to open in Kentucky and to accept the private University of Pikeville into Kentucky’s system of public universities.
Stumbo said Tuesday he’s “open to listening” to charter school proposals “because I think any time we have a new idea about educational improvement, we should listen, but I have reservations, because we can’t allow our public schools to be impacted negatively.” Williams, a longtime proponent of charter schools, said he’s hopeful legislation will pass this year.
An independent group began running TV ads across Kentucky on Tuesday in support of charter schools.