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Lawmakers near time for real business

By JOHN DAVID DYCHE

Workers used shovels to hack away ice and remove snow covering the Capitol's front steps in Frankfort last week. They first carved narrow paths on the extreme right and left and then set about clearing the broad middle ground by which most Kentuckians approach their government.

This outside scene well symbolized the situation inside that beautiful building. The two parties began by staking out their respective ideological positions on the political flanks, but are starting to move to the center on matters where they must.

So far in this General Assembly session the endangered Democrats who control the House of Representatives and the inexplicably popular Gov. Beshear have pursued a predictable path on the political left. They want to raise the minimum wage and increase taxes.

On the political right, the remarkably harmonious Republicans who run the Senate under the skillful leadership of President Robert Stivers will block both. They want to rein in the governor's power to rule by regulation when the legislature is not in session, as Beshear did in implementing Obamacare on his own.

So far the whole process has been more about political point scoring than actually passing anything. As this kabuki dance concludes each side will try to put the other in a position of having to cast votes that could carry bad consequences come this fall's elections.

But now that the candidate filing deadline has passed there is some real legislating going on. The actual sausage-making takes place largely out of sight on subjects that matter more to particular groups than the state as a whole.

That is why ophthalmologists in their lab coats swarmed the Capitol one day, followed by Realtors the next. Lots of interest groups and their lobbyists lined the corridors and lounged in legislative offices hoping to have a lawmaker's ear if only for a moment. Arms are grabbed, backs are slapped, and winks and nods are exchanged.

Democrats and Republicans will have to come together on one big issue - the budget. Gov. Beshear's proposal got a respectful bipartisan reception, but each chamber will tweak it before convening in conference committee. There, under pressure from the calendar and clock, they will make a deal that does the least damage to their respective electoral positions.

Expanded gambling is a high profile issue that has some bipartisan backing, but apparently not enough to pass. Senate Republican supporters Dan Seum of Louisville and Damon Thayer of Georgetown gave a gloomy report of prospects for a casino amendment after a GOP caucus meeting.

That issue is not dead yet, but Beshear's timid tax reform plan and the local option sales tax probably are. Anything is possible when the budget horse trading begins in earnest, but none of these measures to raise new revenue looks like a good bet.

Meanwhile, Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo cynically decided that financing campaigns for governor deserved some of the legislature's limited time despite the commonwealth's many more pressing concerns. He filed a bill to increase the contribution limit from $1,000 to $2,500 if another gubernatorial slate raised the relatively small sum of $1 million.

Stumbo's gambit is a transparent shot at likely Republican candidate Hal Heiner, a wealthy Louisvillian. Heiner recently formed a political action committee comprised of some heavy-hitters to help the GOP gain the five seats it needs for its first House majority since the 1920s.

Some House Republicans who support Heiner's probable primary foe, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, a former state representative himself, are open to Stumbo's bill. "Thanks for helping us win, Hal," these Republicans would essentially say, "now here's a stick in your eye!"

This sound and fury will come to nothing, however. The U.S. Supreme Court has already struck down as unconstitutional laws like Stumbo's that impose different contribution limits on candidates for the same office.

Stumbo's ploy did let Comer deliver the week's best line. The folksy Tompkinsville farmer wisely and wittily told the Courier-Journal, "I'd rather run against someone with a lot of money than someone with a lot of supporters."

The most noteworthy development of the week may have been by David Floyd of Bardstown. Floyd became the first Republican "to serve as primary author of a bill to abolish the death penalty since 1980," according to the American Civil Liberties Union as reported by CN2.

Kudos to Floyd for his clear-headed courage. Sometimes, even amid all the ice and snow, the sun still shines bright on our old Kentucky home.

John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com.

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