FRANKFORT--What’s the old saying: the legislative process is a lot like making sausage; even if you like the product, you may not like watching as it’s being made?
After meeting for 28 days, Kentucky’s General Assembly waited until the wee hours of Wednesday morning to pass a flurry of bills — including a gas “stabilization” bill which no one had previously seen and on which there was never a public hearing — while also earning an extra day of pay.
The 2015 General Assembly calendar called for 28 working days, but as is custom legislative leaders waited until late in the final scheduled day to act on several pieces of major legislation. They couldn’t finish by midnight but because they hadn’t exceeded the maximum allowed days or the constitutional deadline, they were free to continue working past midnight.
But as soon as the clock passed midnight the additional three-and-a-half hours they worked counted as an extra day with extra pay at an estimated cost of $60,000 to $65,000 to taxpayers.
One of the last bills passed also cost taxpayers, freezing the floor on the variable gas tax at 26 cents a gallon. Several lawmakers claimed they were voting “to lower the gas tax,” technically accurate but perhaps disingenuous. The tax was 27.6 cents before the vote, but it was scheduled to fall to 22.5 cents in seven days.
Each drop of 1 cent costs the road fund about $30 million and roughly half the revenue goes back local governments to maintain roads and streets. Local officials from both parties, through the Kentucky Association of County Officials (KACo) and Kentucky League of Cities, put enormous pressure on lawmakers to “stabilize” the tax which is tied to wholesale prices which have been falling.
Lobbyists for both organizations and highway contractors were thick in the capitol hallways Tuesday, button-holing lawmakers. County judges and magistrates, like Greenup County Judge/Executive Bobby Carpenter, a Democrat, and Simpson County Judge/Executive Jim Henderson, worked the bill on Monday or Tuesday.
But lawmakers were wary of voting for something which could be characterized as a tax. In fact, House Democrats passed a similar measure last year when the gas tax was around 30 cents a gallon, but the Republican Senate never took it up. Then last fall, Republican challengers to House Democratic incumbents used their votes against them in campaigns. Democrats were determined this time not to vote for the bill until the Republican Senate acted.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy calculated the lost revenues for each county and some lawmakers cited those data in urging passage of the bill.
Republican Sen. Jared Carpenter of Berea said failure to act on the legislation would cost Madison County more than $1 million in road aid funds.
“We are coming through one of the worst winters in recent history,” Carpenter said. “If we don’t provide the money to make sure we can get our roads fixed and taken care of, that’s when you’re really going to hear from constituents.”
But as midnight Tuesday approached, no bill on the tax had been filed and time was running out. But that’s how the legislative sausage is often made.
Leaders in both chambers agreed to place the measure on another bill and it suddenly came up for a vote in the Senate.
Senate Democrats, mindful of their party’s mistake last year, passed as their names were called. They waited to see how many Republicans voted for the measure. Since the 2015 session is a non-budget session, revenue measures require a three-fifths majority – 23 in the Senate, 60 in the House.
Democrats were determined that at least a majority of the 27 Republicans had to go on record for the measure. After the first roll call, 17 Republicans voted yes, nine Republican senators voted no. One of them was Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who bucked Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, and Transportation Chair Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood.
“I voted on this gas tax floor twice before and both times I was told you will never have to vote on this again,” said an angry Thayer during the floor debate. “When the price goes up, yes, the tax goes up, but when the price goes down, the tax will go down too. That’s how it was sold. We’re breaking our promise to taxpayers.”
One by one, Democrats rose and changed their pass votes to aye votes. One Republican, Brandon Smith of Hazard, also changed his pass to an aye vote.
The situation was reversed in the House. Democrats have 54 seats in the House but the bill required 60 votes and Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, wasn’t going to put his members at risk again without a clear commitment from Republicans.
In the end, 17 Republicans came on board, including Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, and Minority Whip Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, a consistent and ardent opponent of taxes. Minority Caucus Chair Stan Lee, R-Lexington, voted no.
Rep. Arnold Simpson of Covington was the only Democrat to vote no, joining 28 Republicans. Three Democrats, Jim Glenn of Owensboro, Russ Meyer of Nicholasville and Rick Nelson of Middlesboro, and one Republican, David Floyd of Bardstown, didn’t vote.