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Monday, April 16, 2012

Al Cross: [Political] Meltdown Made This Session A [Near Complete] Failure. *SIGH*!

Meltdown made this session a failure
Written by Al Cross

RANKFORT, KY. — F The atmosphere was happy in the marbled-balcony halls on the third floor of the state Capitol as the sun set Thursday and legislators, lobbyists, legislative staff and journalists looked forward to the end of an often frustrating session of the General Assembly.

Redistricting was on hiatus; the budget had long been passed, on schedule; the road plan and the bill to fight prescription-drug abuse had been worked out and were awaiting final votes; and House Democrats had produced a long list of talking points to argue that the session was successful after all.

But in the paneled offices of legislative leaders in the corners of the third floor, and the governor’s office on the first, the atmosphere was sour and getting worse. And when the clock ran out at midnight, the session that could have been somewhat salvaged was mostly a frustrating failure after all.

This column was written at midafternoon Friday, when the blame game was still escalating and the facts were still being sorted out, but we knew the main protagonists in the game of legislative chicken that had no winners: Senate President David Williams and Gov. Steve Beshear, with House Speaker Greg Stumbo in the major supporting role.

By about 7 p.m. Thursday, the plan for roads had been passed — with some legislative legerdemain that seemed to violate the rules for House-Senate conference committees — but the transportation budget to finance the plan had not.

Williams was holding the transportation budget hostage for Beshear’s signature on the road plan, arguing that the governor could veto the plan after the legislature had gone home, unable to override the veto. He said later that the House agreed with that approach.

At a glance, that looks like a reasonable request, especially when the Senate president is a Republican and the governor is a Democrat who defeated him in an election five months ago to win a second term — and who scuttled a big road project in the senator’s home county soon after starting his first term. There’s absolutely no trust between these two. But in practical terms, the request was questionable.

First, Beshear probably needed more time to review the plan, and it’s hard to believe he would have done great violence to it, since it was a bipartisan product of both chambers. He says he can veto parts of it; Williams says not. We should note that the governor left a big question hanging: what he would do with the $288 million in projects for Williams’ Southern Kentucky district, many advanced in the final drafting; and that he offered to sign the plan if the Senate would pass one of his few priority bills, to eventually raise the school-dropout age to 18.

Second, the plan was subject to vetoes that couldn’t be overridden, because the legislature had failed to pass it in time — before the recess of 10 legislative days that the governor has to sign a bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature. Williams and his House colleagues had only themselves to blame for giving Beshear unfettered veto power.

Perhaps Williams was sore on the subject of vetoes because House Democrats had decided that afternoon not to override any of Beshear’s 45 line-item vetoes of the budget bill — contrary to what Williams said Stumbo had told him during their final negotiations on the budget, which were recorded by KET. Williams’ office couldn’t cite a specific Stumbo quote on overrides, and it’s hard to believe that Stumbo would have made such a categorical pledge — though he wouldn’t be past saying something that left Williams with that impression.

The dust-up with Stumbo also appeared to kill the most important bill still hanging fire — Stumbo’s measure to crack down on prescription drug abuse, a top priority for him and other legislators from central Appalachia, the epicenter of what has become a national epidemic.

The doctors’ strong lobby had won concessions that made some lawmakers unhappy, and others thought the compromise bill was still too strong, but it looked ready to pass the Senate on a close vote. But Williams never brought it to the floor. The same was true of the bill to fund college scholarships in the two coalfields, an outgrowth of the effort by Stumbo to bring into the state system the University of Pikeville, a school headed by former Gov. Paul Patton, who was the first Democratic governor to do battle with Williams.

The fate of the drug bill made the session, on balance, a failure. Lawmakers have plenty of time, 60 legislative days, to address the state’s problems, and the abuse of prescription drugs is a huge issue. Yes, the bill should be easy to pass in the special session that Beshear has called to begin Monday, but the need for a special session, costing about $60,000 a day, is what makes the regular session a failure.

We have seen this movie before. Time and again since 2000, when Republicans took over the Senate, they have leveraged the 60-day deadline in efforts to change policies and budgets, and more than once special sessions have been necessary. So we have become accustomed, all too accustomed, to end-of-session meltdowns. But as meltdowns go, this one was especially bad, because it was so unexpected.

Beshear, who has been in danger of being judged the least effective governor in his own lifetime, wasted no time in blaming the latest and previous debacles on Williams. And then he took their grudge match too far by criticizing him in the call for a special session. Instruments of state should not be political screeds.

Beshear’s dander was clearly up. In his news conference immediately after the session, he used language that was harsher than any attack he made during their race last year, and included a pointed reminder of the result: “I whooped him by 21 points. I think everybody in this state got the message except for David Williams.”

About half of Beshear’s margin probably stemmed from the unpopularity that Williams had amassed in the last decade, so the governor has an easy target. But Williams is on target when he criticizes Beshear for not being fully engaged with the legislature. If Beshear were more engaged, he would have more leverage among lawmakers, including Republicans who might be able to curb Williams’ competitive passions.

As the blame game began in the wee hours of Friday morning, Williams said Beshear was “playing brinksmanship” with roads. That made me laugh. Kentucky’s biggest brinksman has been David Williams.

Al Cross, former Courier-Journal political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. His opinions are his own, not those of the university.

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