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Lawmakers Kick Off Legislative Session Tuesday

By Associated Press

Frankfort, KY – Lawmakers are scheduled to convene Tuesday for a legislative session chock-full of politically divisive issues, including proposals that would legalize casino-style gambling, redraw legislative and congressional district boundary lines, and craft a budget that will almost certainly require more cuts to government agencies and services.

Richard Beliles, head of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Kentucky, said he expects political fireworks lasting into April when lawmakers adjourn and go home.

"I fear it's going to be a contentious situation, which is not in the best interest of the people," Beliles said.

Gov. Steve 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 to consent.

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 to be ratified or rejected by voters.

Lexington pastor Jeff Fugate, one of the state's most vocal gambling opponents, has warned that lawmakers who vote for such an amendment would be held accountable at the polls.

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 that casino-style games prey on the poor and could spawn more crime in the state.

Beliles said the once-a-decade chore of redrawing political boundaries between legislative and congressional districts could generate bitter debate, too.

Redistricting occurs every 10 years to account for population changes found in the Census. In Kentucky, lawmakers have sole discretion in changing boundary lines. Belies has pressed for lawmakers to form an independent commission to redraw the boundary lines to avoid the political games and infighting.

"We are in the final stages of putting our redistricting maps together and will be ready to go in the legislative session's opening days," House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said in a statement. "I think you will find the House and Senate will quickly find common ground on each chamber's plans for its own districts and for the Kentucky Supreme Court's. Hopefully we can reach accord quickly as well on congressional redistricting."

Drafting the state's two-year budget 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 having adopted a budget, forcing special sessions to continue negotiations.

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.

The second-term governor is also pushing for tax reforms in the upcoming legislative session, but he hasn't yet made any specific proposals. He said he will be doing that in coming weeks.

While gambling and tax reforms could produce extra cash in the long term, Beshear said he doesn't expect it will come in time to substantially bolster the next two-year budget.

Beshear also intends to press lawmakers to increase the age at which students can drop out of school from 16 to 18. That, too, has been a contentious issue in the state legislature. Opponents contend such a move would keep disruptive students in classrooms. But Beshear said raising the dropout age over five years will allow school districts to develop alternative learning programs for troublesome teens.

House Democrats favor the proposal, but Senate Republicans have been unwilling to go along.

"This bill has been introduced now three times; it's passed the House three times, overwhelmingly, with bipartisan support," Beshear said. "I find a lot of bipartisan support in the Senate, and I'm hopeful that during this session it will get a vote in the Senate."

Lawmakers will again have to deal with a proposal to require prescriptions for over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in methamphetamine. That proposal proved controversial in the last legislative session. After lengthy and heated debates, the proposal bogged down and died.

That also was the fate of a proposal by Rep. Lonnie Napier, R-Lancaster, to force welfare recipients to undergo random drug testing. Napier is promising to push that initiative again, hoping to revoke benefits of those who test position.

Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, had planned to push an unrelated proposal to stop welfare recipients from using food stamps to purchase candy and soda. He quickly backed off when faced with widespread opposition in his eastern Kentucky district.