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Do We Need More Legislative Sessions?

When you go to vote November 7, one of the ballot choices will be a proposal to change the schedule of meetings of the Kentucky Legislature from every other year, to every year.

Specifically, you’ll be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment that would create annual legislative sessions. Now, the Constitution calls for the legislature to meet for 60 days only in even-numbered years, unless the governor calls a special session. The amendment on this year’s ballot would add a 30-day session in odd-numbered years. During that shorter session the legislature could pass any law, with one exception: a three-fifths majority would be required to pass any bill that raised revenue or appropriated money.

To help sort out the annual session issues, Kentucky Living talked with a pair of long-time observers of Kentucky state policy.

Mack Morgan Jr. opposes the annual sessions amendment. He was president of the Kentucky Retail Federation from 1972 to 1992, holds the rank of general in the Army Reserve, and prior to retirement was considered among the most highly respected governmental affairs participants in the Kentucky legislative process.

Al Smith favors the amendment. He is a veteran newspaper and radio journalist and for 26 years has been the moderator of Comment on Kentucky on Kentucky Educational Television. He is also a highly regarded former newspaper publisher and editor.

Q: What got us to the point of having this initiative on the ballot?

Mack Morgan Jr.: I believe it was primarily the administrative regulations problem, which is a balance of power problem. The executive branch has an advantage over the legislative branch in the two-year system in that they can promulgate regulations and the legislative branch cannot do a thing about it until the next time they are in regular session. There are a lot of people, I am among them, who believe the administrative branch has taken advantage of this and that there really should be some way to help balance that out. That is probably the only plus that I see about this proposal.

Al Smith: The balance of power issue is one of at least three major reasons why there is support for annual sessions, the others being that we have a far more complex society than we have had and it is growing, and we have a $35 billion budget. We deserve better than having nearly two years between legislative sessions. We spend fewer days than almost any other state on our legislative business. The Congress does not operate this way. City councils and fiscal courts do not operate this way.

Morgan: Point out to me those states that are actually doing a better job than we are doing here in Kentucky. Where is it that we are short? I do not know that I have ever known that the Kentucky Legislature was not able to deal with every issue they needed to during their regular session or in a special session called by the governor.

And in terms of just the budget, some states have gone the opposite direction. Several legislatures who went from biennial budgeting to annual budgeting have now gone back to biennial budgeting. In Kentucky thereís a fear of annual budget sessions, and thatís why the measure requires a three-fifths majority in order to deal with financial matters. The truth is that if something needs to be done with the budget they can do as they have done with a lot of other thingsóthey can have special sessions, which the governor may call to deal with particular issues.

Another concern I have is that while this measure would add a short session in the odd-numbered years, there could still be as many as 1,000 bills introduced to deal with in the 30-day session.

Q: You mentioned an imbalance of power in Frankfort due to the administration’s ability to write regulations. What’s that about?

Smith: In the last couple of years the legislature passed 475 bills. The administration took those bills and wrote 3,100 regulations over two years. It is the contention of Speaker of the House Jody Richards that at least a third of these regulations went beyond the intention of the legislature or did not really interpret them the way that the legislators had wished.

Morgan: That problem needs solving, but if the solution is annual sessions the odd-year session should be a limited-issues session. They could then act on administrative regulations every year instead of once every two years.

Q: How would this measure change the legislature?

Smith: There is a study that the state of Florida made on what happened after four states changed to annual sessions. They found only a 5 percent variation after annual sessions from the kinds of people that they had before. In other words they had basically the same proportion of farmers, lawyers, merchants, salesmen, professional people, and so on. They did not get that much change.

Morgan: I am concerned that with this additional session you would create a full-time General Assembly. Then you are going to have to pay the money that a full-time job should be paid.

Smith: What we really have now is a full-time legislature with half-time pay. The present system is very disruptive. Itís very hard for citizen legislators to plan their lives around interim committees, and with sometimes very short notice of special sessions. They do not know how long they are going to be in the special session.

Q: What about salaries for legislators and staff if this measure passes?

Morgan: We are either going to end up with a lesser quality legislator if we demand full-time work for what we are paying now, or we are going to pay what the job is worth and increase the pay to where it can attract the kind of people that we would like to see run for office.

But I would also make the point that when you talk about additional pay for the members of the General Assembly, even if we pay them very well, that is a drop in the bucket in terms of a total budget.

Smith: You are saying annual sessions will give them an excuse to raise their pay. 

Morgan: I do not think it is an excuse. I think it would be very justified and should be done. If they pass this amendment I would be very much in favor of recognizing the fact that we have created a professional legislature. Also, pay the money it takes to get the caliber of people we want who are going to be making these decisions for us. I do not want to underpay the General Assembly. Since 1966 I have watched the quality of this General Assembly gradually and dramatically improve. 

At the same time I watched several of our best legislators choose not to run again. One of the main reasons they have done it is because it required too much time. It was too big of a sacrifice money-wise. It was not fair to their family and they had to go back to work. 

Q: You feel this proposal calls for legislators to do more work, so they should be paid more. But there’s no pay increase tied to the measure. What kind of position does that put a voter in?

Morgan: The voter should say, "Do I believe that I will be better off and that the other residents of the Commonwealth will be better off as a result of this change in the way in which the General Assembly meets?" In thinking about that the voter could reasonably say,
"Well, I think it is fairly obvious that this is going to take a heck of a lot more of their time and that we very well may create a full-time professional legislature in that regard. Then, obviously if we are going to have the kind of legislature we want, are we going to have to pay them more money?" So, yes, it probably will result in higher pay, which would certainly be justified. 

Smith: The voter must say, ìIs this better than what we have now? Do I think the danger of paying more to the legislators in the annual sessions, the fact that I have not gotten the perfect proposal before me, do those things overcome the efficiency that I might get?

Q: In a few words, why do you feel the way you do about this proposal? 

Morgan: I just don’t see where we are hurting in our current system that would be improved by annual sessions.

Smith: I think we would be better off with an adjustment to the balance of power situation.

Morgan: Which should be done without annual sessions. There is a mechanism that could be proposed to accomplish that without going this far. Ten years ago the General Assembly proposed a mechanism that would allow them to take care of that balance of power issue with administrative regulations. It was defeated because it seemed complex and was on the ballot with another initiative. The point is, I am not sure that to create annual sessions for that purpose justifies it.

Q: What will happen if this measure does not pass, if the voters reject it?

Smith: The world will not fall. The interim system will continue to be relied on. The governor will continue to call special sessions.

Morgan: And they will propose another ballot initiative and try it again.

Q: Predictions please: will this measure pass?

Morgan: I would say the odds are pretty good.

Smith: I think it will pass because it only lost by 2 percent of the total votes last time, and those who opposed it last election donít seem as strong in their opposition this time.

The annual sessions amendment

Here is the wording of the annual sessions measure you will be asked to vote on as part of the November 7 elections:

Constitutional Amendment #1

Are you in favor of amending the Constitution to establish annual sessions of the legislature, in addition to the current 60 legislative-day regular session in even-numbered years, by requiring the Kentucky General Assembly to meet in odd-numbered years for up to 30 legislative days during which the General Assembly may consider any issue except that the General Assembly shall be prohibited from passing any bill raising revenue or appropriating funds unless agreed to by three-fifths of all members elected to each house?

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