Ky. Lawmakers Push Big Ideas Amid Meager Finances

Associated Press Writer

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - One lawmaker is proposing legislation to criminalize consensual sex between teachers and older teens. Another wants to allow active-duty soldiers who are at least 18 to legally buy and drink alcohol.

Hundreds of other bills are expected to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session that begins Jan. 8. With the state facing one of the bleakest financial outlooks in recent history, however, the state budget is certain to be the overshadowing issue, said House Speaker Jody Richards.

"I don't remember a situation more financially difficult than this one," said Richards, D-Bowling Green. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens."

Richards said the budget crisis could threaten some $400 million in long-awaited dormitories, laboratories and other buildings on university campuses.

Gov. Steve Beshear describes the state's financial condition as dire. Shortfalls already have been popping up in a variety of state programs, including Medicaid, which provides medical care to the poor and elderly.

Some Republican lawmakers have suggested that concerns being raised about the state's $18 billion budget may be a precursor to a push to legalize casino gambling. Beshear says such a move could raise about $500 million a year in extra tax revenue.

Beshear said he will ask lawmakers to approve a measure that would allow Kentucky voters to decide whether to change the state constitution to allow about 10 casinos to open. The constitution currently bans casinos.

That was a central issue in the governor's race that Beshear won in November. He favored a vote on casinos. Former Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who lost in a lopsided vote, was opposed.

Nevertheless, the proposal has an uncertain future in the General Assembly. Similar proposals before the legislature have never before gained traction.

Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, has said he doesn't see much support in the legislature for expanding gambling proposals. Williams has said, however, that he would not move to block a vote in the Senate.

Lawmakers have a long line of costly proposals awaiting them, including a spending measure that would provide $20 million in drought relief to Kentucky farmers who struggled through one of the driest summers in state history.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, said he was "not pessimistic" about the upcoming legislative session, given competing issues that include gambling and the state budget.

"Every session has its own personality as far as difficulties regarding the budget and issues that are controversial," Kelly said.

More than 200 bills have been prefiled in anticipation of the legislation session. Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Erlanger, is sponsoring legislation that would require physicians to perform ultrasounds on pregnant women and require the women to look at the images before receiving an abortion.

Another proposal would criminalize consensual sex between teachers and older students, closing what some see as a legal loophole. Under current law, it is not illegal for a teacher to have sex with a high school student who is 16 and a willing participant. State Rep. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, said she has agreed to sponsor that legislation, which was sparked by a large number of sex-related complaints against teachers nationwide.

One of the issues expected to come before lawmakers is a push by state Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, to lift drinking restrictions on active duty military personnel who are at least 18 years old. Floyd is sponsoring the legislation that would allow enlistees under 21 to go into bars, purchase and drink alcoholic beverages.

Another initiative would provide death benefits totaling $250,000 to widows of coal miners killed on the job and scholarships of $50,000 to their children.

Senate Republicans, who control the chamber, are pushing multiple ideas this session related to improving math and science education in the state, Kelly said. Republican lawmakers are looking to boost advanced placement testing options in high schools across the state, and make changes to the state's merit-based college scholarship rogram, Kelly said.

Similar math and sciences proposals were floated last year, but did not pass successfully through the legislature. This year could be different, Kelly said.

"We think the environment will be better this year because the needs are still there," Kelly said. "It's a pretty critical issue."

State Rep. Jim Glenn, D-Owensboro, will push legislation that would prohibit caffeine-stoked energy drinks in the schools. And several lawmakers have lined up in support of bills aimed at requiring schools to provide at least 30 minutes of exercise each day for children.

"I think the whole issue of inactivity and obesity for children is important," Richards said. "Whether those will be dealt with, I don't know."

Associated Press writer Joe Biesk contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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