Kentucky Republicans keeping things interesting

Published 8:46 am Tuesday, April 10, 2018


Guest columnist

Maybe the nicest way to sum up the work of Frankfort’s lawmakers so far this year is that Kentucky’s new Republican rulers keep finding new ways to make things interesting. “May you live in interesting times” is an old curse.

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Their work is not all bad, and some of it is historic. But it’s still being written. And it might yet be erased.

The General Assembly voted to raise taxes, mainly to thwart Gov. Matt Bevin’s cuts to education. That was the House’s end of a deal in which the Senate got a pension reform that triggered teacher sickouts, protests and vows of vengeance at the polls.

The legislature voted to extend the sales tax to some services, a move needed for 30 years, and it raised the cigarette tax 50 cents a pack, to $1.10, the biggest increase ever.

But the services tax still leaves out services used mainly by the well-to-do, such as legal work and accounting, while taxing such things as auto repairs, needed by people who can’t afford new vehicles. And the bill’s flat-rate income tax is a cut for higher-income people and an increase for the poorest Kentuckians. The campaign-contributor class won this one, hands down.

The cigarette-tax hike is another hit on the less well-off; smokers are disproportionately poor. The increase isn’t enough to keep cigarette makers from countering it with retailer discounts and consumer coupons, then gradually raising prices, to keep smokers hooked. This borders on malicious.

As the big deal was brewing, the top state-government lobbyist for Philip Morris came to Frankfort to make sure the tax didn’t go higher (it didn’t), still exempted non-smoking tobacco (sister firm U.S. Smokeless has a plant in Hopkinsville) and didn’t hit electronic cigarettes (a 15-percent tax on e-cigs somehow got deleted from the bill, very late).

None of this got much public debate. The tax bill was a surprise, much as the compromise pension bill had been days earlier. The House and Senate voted on both bills before they were publicly available. The real decisions were made in the secret party caucuses of Republicans who control both chambers (following suit from the decades when Democrats ruled).

As if this wasn’t sufficiently interesting, Bevin weighed in as the tax and budget bills moved through the House and Senate, calling them fiscally irresponsible. That raised the prospect that a Republican governor would veto the two most important bills passed by Kentucky’s first Republican-controlled legislature, forcing a special legislative session. Without the taxes, the budget is moot, and that is the one bill that must be passed.

It only takes a majority of each chamber to override a veto, but the tax bill passed with no votes to spare — 20-18 in the Senate, 51-44 in the House — and it seems to be getting less popular by the day. As people and groups affected by it discover what it would do to them, they are complaining. The National Federation of Independent Business called it “a disaster for Kentucky’s small businesses.”

Surely, in those private meetings where they secured votes for the bill, legislative leaders told legislators that they might have to cast another, tougher vote for it — against organized lobbying interests, a public upset with secrecy and a governor who likes to use his bully pulpit and isn’t bashful about attacking legislators.

Bevin is likely upset that the legislature didn’t follow his demands on pensions, and that it stole his thunder on tax reform. He has been burning bridges with legislators for a long time and appears to have few real friends in the General Assembly.

One indication of that may be lack of action on the proposed constitutional amendment that would move elections for governor and other statewide constitutional offices to presidential election years, by giving those elected in 2019 five-year terms ending in 2024.

The Senate passed the proposal very early in the session, but it has languished in the House, where it needs 60 votes to get to the November ballot. There are 63 Republicans, so perhaps some of them aren’t all that excited about giving Bevin any extra time in office.

A more likely reason is that they don’t want to run in the same year that a governor is elected. It might make fund-raising more difficult, and it could compromise legislative independence from governors. That was what the legislature had in mind when it got voters to move legislative elections from gubernatorial-election years to even-numbered years in 1979.

As they rushed to pass bills Monday so they would have time to override vetoes, legislative leaders said they were defending their independence. Now they will have to defend it again, but the way they handled their business will make it more difficult.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column originally appeared in the Courier Journal.