Friday, March 23, 2007

We Aren’t All Stupid

From the Lexington Herald-Leader

Some leading lawmakers are again pushing a controversial measure that would make it easier for a handful of legislators to effectively change state law without first having a public debate. The proposal would clarify that lawmakers have the ability to set aside existing laws and create new laws within the executive branch budget bill, which appropriates billions of dollars once every two years. It was put into an unrelated House bill by a Senate committee last week.

Unlike most other bills, the final details of a budget bill are usually hammered out in closed-door meetings of leading lawmakers from the House and Senate. Most rank-and-file legislators have no opportunity to even read the mammoth document before casting a vote on the measure in its entirety. "If that thing passes, then legislative leaders will have control over absolutely all legislation," said Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, D-Lexington. "We might as well pick up our tent and go home."

A similar proposal was withdrawn last month by House budget committee Chairman Harry Moberly after several Democratic and Republican lawmakers objected. In general, the provisions within the budget bill expire after two years. But in recent years, lawmakers have increasingly been using the bill to make permanent changes to the state's statutes. Groups opposed to those changes have filed multiple lawsuits, claiming that permanent changes to law within the budget bill are unconstitutional. "That bill is blatantly unconstitutional and laughable," said Mark Guilfoyle, a former state budget director. He is representing clients who think lawmakers have been illegally raiding a $19 million workers' compensation fund. The state Supreme Court is considering whether to take up the lawsuit.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Dan Kelly, who backs the amended version of House Bill 228, said he is confident that state law already allows legislators to change laws within the budget bill. The legislation simply eliminates the need to wrangle in court, he said. "We don't think they'll win, but rather than litigate it out and find out we're $20 million or $100 million in the hole, we'd like to close the door on the issue," Kelly said.

The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted March 12 to approve the amended bill -- which originally dealt with consumer protection measures during a time of crisis -- and placed it on the Senate's consent calender. The consent calender is reserved for non-controversial bills that require no debate. Kelly said he expects the measure to pass without objection because "it's a pretty important issue."

Scorsone said he has already cast a no vote on the bill. If it wins approval in the Senate, the amended measure must return to the House for its consideration. Moberly, D-Richmond, said he supports the bill, but others do not. "I don't believe anybody is for that," said Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington. "That will have to be stripped out of there. We cannot do that."

Scandal has marred Governor Fletcher’s administration. Corruption and fraud have dominated the headlines. Now, legislators want secret sessions? Please…

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