Legislative session opens with redistricting talks

Associated Press State Wire: Kentucky (KY) - Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Author: ROGER ALFORD - Associated Press
Lawmakers who convened the 2012 session of the General Assembly on Tuesday prepared to tackle a litany of divisive issues, including legislative and congressional redistricting and a push to allow casino-style gambling in Kentucky. 

Throw in crafting a lean two-year budget that will likely require further cuts to government agencies and services, and lawmakers are certain to face a fiery get-together that will last into April. 

''Redistricting is going to be the dominating topic we're going to be concentrating on initially,'' said House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook. ''We're hoping to have that completed and out of the way within the first two weeks.'' 

Gavels fell in the House and Senate shortly after noon, signaling the start of the legislative session. One of the first actions was the filing of a proposal that would redraw boundary lines around the state's legislative and congressional districts. 

Always contentious, redistricting occurs every 10 years to account for population changes in the Census. In Kentucky, lawmakers have sole discretion in changing boundary lines. 

''We need to move on it as quickly as possible, get it behind us, and just go on,'' said House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. ''You're going to have a lot of people upset about it. Population shifts mean that people move out of districts they're comfortable with and into districts that they may not be comfortable with. That's just what the federal courts say we have to do, so we have to do it.'' 

When that's passed, lawmakers will focus on the budget, which has proven to be challenging in the past for a legislature that has a Democratic majority in the House and a Republican majority in the Senate. Over the past decade, they've repeatedly adjourned without a budget, forcing special sessions. 

Gov. Steve Beshear has warned that the upcoming budget cycle could be the most challenging yet. The lingering recession has triggered $1 billion in revenue shortfalls over the past four years. And with federal stimulus money used up and no sentiment for a tax increase, lawmakers will have to slash spending again. 

Stumbo told reporters that he believes the House could approve a proposal to expand gambling beyond horse races, lotteries and charitable bingo games, depending on the language in a proposal that is expected in the Senate. 

''I think it could pass pretty easily,'' Stumbo said. 

Beshear, who favors casino-style gambling in the state, said he expects a proposal to be filed in the Senate within days of the start of the legislative session. Beshear has been pushing the gambling issue for four years, but so far lawmakers have been unwilling. 

Beshear said Kentucky is losing hundreds of millions of dollars to neighboring states that allow casino-style gambling. He said Kentucky could recapture some of that money for needs within its borders by offering the same kinds of gambling here. 

In past legislative sessions, the gambling debate has been rancorous with opponents arguing the games prey on the poor and could spawn more crime. 

While Kentucky has a long history of betting on horses, the Bible-belt state has a longstanding constitutional ban on casino-style gambling. Beshear wants lawmakers to approve a proposed constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot for voters. 

Lawmakers will also see pushes to allow charter schools and to accept the private University of Pikeville into Kentucky's system of public universities. 

Stumbo said he's open to listening to charter school proposals ''because I think any time we have a new idea about educational improvement, we should listen, but I have reservations, because we can't allow our public schools to be impacted negatively.'' 

The House speaker also said he expects to file legislation Wednesday that would provide public funding for the University of Pikeville. The proposal is to use revenue from coal severance taxes to operate the campus in far eastern Kentucky.