There’s an old joke in Frankfort that goes, “Instead of meeting 60 days every two years, the general assembly ought to meet two days every 60 years.” More recently, lawmakers have gathered annually, but there’s talk among some that the old ways are best. They want to gather for a couple months, every other year. The discussion is being provoked by a constitutional amendment proposed by western Kentucky Senator Bob Leeper. Over a decade ago, voters agreed the general assembly should gather every winter. Now, Leeper, who’s the only independent in the general assembly, would like voters to re-visit that decision.
“A prediction of more than one session this summer or this spring, whatever the governor chooses to do indicates that we’re not really saving the money that was proposed when the amendment went on the ballot previously. So we’re spending about three point six million dollars a year that a lot of people thought would be offset and it’s not. So there’s definitely savings to be had,” said Leeper.
Voters okayed the shift to annual sessions in 2000. Former State Secretary of State Bob Babbage was asked by the leaders in both houses to lead the campaign for annual sessions. Babbage, who’s now a lobbyist, says there’s been more efficiency.
“The whole notion that we shouldn’t have short sessions or special sessions because they have a cost to them has to be pegged against the cost to the state if you don’t tend to the government and make those decisions when they’re so urgently needed,” added Babbage.
A big backer was Bowling Green Democrat Jody Richard, who was the speaker of the Kentucky House. Now, sometimes referred to as the father of annual sessions, Richards thinks they’re still a good idea. He can’t see going back.
“Well, it would be a terrible step backward and a terrible step backward for legislative independence,” said Richards.
In selling the change to voters, some lawmakers argued the governor had too much power when the general assembly was absent for the better part of two years. And, when lawmakers were recalled to Frankfort for frequent special sessions, Richards says it created a hardship for lawmakers who needed to work full-time in other jobs.
“We had so many people retiring from the legislature because of all these special sessions we were having. Under one governor, we had nine special sessions. We’ve only had ten in the now 13 years, since we’ve had annual sessions,” explained Richards.
Plus, some say the 30-day sessions, conducted in odd-numbered years, are just too jam packed. Lobbyist Mark Wilson, whose firm represents 20 clients, says to work properly, the legislative process requires more time.
“I think in a 30 day session we had over six or seven hundred bills pre-filed and filed, trying to be considered and that’s an awful lot of legislation to cram into 30 days, so not as much winds up getting accomplished in these short sessions,” said Wilson.
If the legislature went back to meeting once every other year, Wilson says lobbyists would adjust. He says they would spend more time between sessions lobbying lawmakers.
Instead of more time, Louisville Representative Ron Crimm says lawmakers need a focused agenda.
“In a perfect world, I would have said, we have five major issues. No other bill gets heard until we resolve those five issues. Then if there’s time left, then we get into the rest of them,” said Crimm.
Crimm says it’s a topic he and his colleagues have been bantering about the state capitol recently.
“Well I mean there’s a lot of conversation around on the floors about whether we’re doing this the right way or not with this short session. So it’s not a strange bill,” added Crimm.
While it may not be a strange bill, Senate sponsor Bob Leeper doesn’t see it as an easy sell.. Instead of passing this session, Leeper says it might get more traction when lawmaker gather again, next year.