In Depth: The Special Session in Frankfort

by Tony McVeigh on March 10, 2011

The dust is still settling from this year’s regular legislative session, but Kentucky lawmakers are being ordered back to Frankfort for a special session on Medicaid. Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh explains what’s behind this unusual turn of events.

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Last November, Gov. Behear unveiled his plan for filling a gaping hole in the state’s Medicaid budget, created when Kentucky received fewer federal stimulus dollars than anticipated.

Beshear suggested shifting $166 million from the second year of the Medicaid budget to the current year, and covering any resulting deficits with savings from managed care. Put into bill form, the governor’s plan passed the House 80-19 on February 10th. All 19 of the no votes were Republicans.

After hearings in the Senate budget committee, an altered version of the bill passed the Senate 24-12 on March 2nd. The vote was mostly along party lines, with the exceptions of Democratic Sens. Joey Pendleton and Ray Jones.

“This is not gonna be the last time that we have to make hard decisions about the budget,” said Jones. “We’re talking about minor cuts in this bill.”

Jones was referring to across-the-board cuts to state agencies, including education, backed by Senate Republicans. Senate changes to the House bill meant conferees from each chamber would have to meet to try to iron out the differences. When the negotiations began Monday morning, Senate Minority Leader R.J. Palmer was optimistic.

“We’ve shown plenty of times in the past that the two chambers have been pretty far apart at the beginning of a conference committee and they’ve been able to come to resolution,” said Palmer.

For two full days, proposals and counter-proposals flew across the negotiating table. But all along, Speaker Greg Stumbo made it clear the House was not going to accept any cuts to education to balance Medicaid.
“It may be that there’s a time that we’d have to reduce all – an across-the-board cut – but now is not the time,” said Stumbo.

And Senate President David Williams was just as adamant that across-the-board cuts was a better plan than moving second year funding forward.

“We’ve put forth a fair budget offer that will protect the fiscal situation in Kentucky as much as possible,” said Williams.

With neither side willing to accept the other’s position, the negotiations collapsed Tuesday night. The House the prepared to adjourn until March 21st, the day after a 10-day veto recess.

But before the gavel could fall, Senate Republicans sent word to Democratic House leaders they intended to meet on Wednesday. If they did, the session would end because that would be day 30 of the 30-day session. House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins went ballistic.

“The people’s business is not finished!’ shouted Adkins. “It’s still on the table! And when you don’t get your way, you don’t pick up your ball and go home. You stay, and you battle, and you get it done!”

Adkins called the Senate’s plan to end the session early ‘unprecedented’ but Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers reminded House Democrats they walked out of a special session called by former Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
“And said, unless there was an agreement, they were not coming back to Frankfort,” said Stivers.

Shortly after President David Williams gaveled the Senate to order on Wednesday, effectively ending the session, Gov. Beshear announced he would call a special session, to begin on Monday. Only two items would be on the agenda.

“Reopening the budget to balance Medicaid,” said Beshear. “The second agenda item is enacting legislation to increase the drop out age at our schools.”

Later, Sen. Damon Thayer accused the governor of wasting taxpayer dollars by calling a special session when the House and Senate remain at odds.

“It is a path fraught with peril,” said Thayer.

Last year, Kentucky lawmakers had 60 days to pass a state budget. They failed, and spent six days in special session completing their work. This year, lawmakers had 30 days to tweak the budget, and again they failed. So on Monday, they will gather in Frankfort for a special session that will cost taxpayers roughly $60,000 a day, with no specific termination date.

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