BETWEEN THE AISLES: Calm at the Capitol could be deceiving

Nearing the finish line of 2014 Legislative Session, much is still unresolved

By Kevin Wheatley, Published:

Compared to the past few months, a calm has fallen over Frankfort.

The Capitol Annex’s parking lot is a little emptier. Fewer cars with license plates denoting House and Senate districts can be seen whizzing around the city’s streets.

Welcome to a brief reprieve as Gov. Steve Beshear and his staff consider which bills and budget items should be vetoed. But still waters are deceiving — much remains unresolved as the General Assembly nears the April 15 finish line.

As lawmakers often remind reporters, no bill is dead until April 16. Floor amendments can always be filed to bills in either chamber’s possession, resurrecting issues that had been bargained during the veto break.

Such could be the case for a $65 million bond sale to help in the $310 million proposed renovation of Lexington’s Rupp Arena and convention center, home of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. 

Beshear, after a press conference Thursday, said he will be “very aggressive” in pushing for the state bonds, which were cut in the legislature’s $20.3 billion, two-year state budget.

“I’m a believer in that project because of the economics of it,” Beshear said. “It brings so much positive economic impact to Lexington and central Kentucky, creates a lot of jobs, and so from that standpoint I think it’s a no-brainer.”

The Democratic governor also looked at the Rupp Arena project from a fairness standpoint, noting $75 million in bond sales to support construction of Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center years ago and $56 million in the General Assembly’s proposed budget for renovations at the Kentucky International Convention Center. 

“Lexington and the Wildcats deserve no less than what we’ve done for Louisville and the Louisville Cardinals,” Beshear said. “We’ve given the Louisville Cardinals a world-class facility to play in, and they deserve it. The Wildcats deserve the same thing.”

Beshear said he invited Senate and House leaders to the Governor’s Mansion Tuesday to meet with Lexington and University of Kentucky officials, spending about three hours briefing lawmakers on “every aspect of the financing plan” for the Rupp Arena and convention center project. 

“There shouldn’t be anybody in that group now that says, ‘We don’t know what this is all about,’” Beshear said.

But the state’s support for Rupp Arena’s renovation is just one of the issues left hanging as the veto break continues this week. 

Lawmakers are expected to cobble together a final agreement on the last vital piece of legislation still unresolved — the state’s six-year road plan and biennial highway construction plan. 

Bargaining over the road plan has proven contentious in recent sessions, with legislators adjourning at the end of the past two 60-day sessions without an agreement in place. Those stalemates have prompted quick returns to Frankfort in special sessions, at a cost to taxpayers of about $60,000 per day.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said March 31 that not lifting the floor of the gas tax rate to its level Dec. 31 would create a $107 million gap in revenue for the two-year construction plan, meaning fewer projects would be funded. Both Beshear and the House relied on receipts from the rate increase — up 2.2 cents per gallon — in their road plans.

“That ($107 million) is based upon current wholesale price projections,” Stumbo said. “As we’ve pointed out, gasoline at the retail level continues to rise. The wholesale levels continue to be, from our information, fairly stagnant.”

And he continued an oft-repeated charge (no pun intended) regarding prices at the pump: “What you’re really seeing now is a tremendous amount of price-gouging and profiteering by the oil companies.”

Republicans in both the House and Senate say the proposed rate increase, which was not included in a compromised revenue package passed March 31, amounted to a tax hike on Kentucky’s drivers. 

The Republican Party of Kentucky and Kentucky Family Values, a Democratic super PAC, targeted districts of some of those in the House who voted for the gas tax increase with automated calls, meaning the issue will likely resurface in the fall elections. 

Stumbo told The State Journal last month he expects November will be “a slugfest” as Republicans eye leadership in the chamber for the first time in a century and Democrats try to extend their 54-46 majority in the chamber.

Other legislation likely will be negotiated during the veto break. Bills on Kentucky’s heroin problem, phone deregulation, improving college education in coal-producing counties and more remain unresolved as the 60-day session nears its end.

Keep an eye out for some of the floor amendments filed when lawmakers wrap up their work next week because who knows what will be shoehorned into legislation at the last minute. There’s bound to be a surprise or two at the 11th hour April 15.

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