(WHAS11) -- The 2012 Kentucky General Assembly began on Tuesday with chatter about expanded gambling, concerns about Louisville bridge money and a redistricting process that threatens to derail progress on other bills.
The session begins on an ominous note, what is being described as the most challenging budget in Kentuck history.
"There are serious financial problems in this state," said Senate President David Williams (R-Burkesville). Williams said dealing with a projected budget shortfall and other pressing issues supercedes Governor Steve Beshear's renewed push for expanded gambling.
Off his crushing loss to Beshear in the governor's race, Williams is reasserting himself as Senate President.
"(Beshear) talked about he was going to have a bold agenda," Williams said to reporters after the Senate adjourned, "Now we haven't been briefed on what that bold agenda is or the langaunge of anything, but hope springs eternal."
Beshear has an opportunity to offer specifics on his agenda in the State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday night.
"We'll be seeing a lot of new ideas," said Democratic strategist Sherman Brown, deputy campaign manager for Beshear's reelection effort, "I'm sure this is going to be an opportunity for some legislators to make a real name for themselves, stepping up and throwing some bold ideas out there and see what we can do."
"They're going to have to be creative," Brown added, citing the expanded gambling effort as an example.
One lawmaker making a name for himself in the gambling debate is Sen. Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown), a businessman with ties to the horse racing industry. Thayer has met privately with Beshear on developing a gambling constitutional amendment.
"We agree that we ought to put the issue on the ballot," Thayer said, "I think in general we agree that it needs to be simple language so it's easily understood so the voters know what they're deciding on. They're going to have a big choice to make."
As do lawmakers. Thayer said he told Beshear that the gambling bill would have to wait until at least the second week of the session before it is introduced. The Republican wanted to first meet with the GOP Senate caucus to hear their concerns and ideas.
Williams, an expanded gambling opponent, questioned why the Democratic incument governor is depending on Thayer - a Republican - to craft the bill in the first place.
"It seems very strange with all the Democrats and hundreds of people that he has that are for gambling here over four years into it, that they don't even have the language," Williams quipped, adding that Thayer is a free agent, not acting on behalf of the caucus in the gambling bill talks.
Yet, the GOP Caucus Chairman, Sen. Dan Seum (R-Fairdale), revealed that, in a private meeting of their own, Williams and Beshear had also come to a general agreement about allowing the gambling bill to come to a vote.
"Yes it is (a sign of cooperation)," Seum said, "And of course I've always been for putting it on the ballot. And of course the big issue is whether or not this thing sets up a monopoly for those folks that want it, or we just open it up to have the licenses out there and let anybody bid on it. So that's going to be a sticking point. And the second point is, what do we do with the money?"
While acknowledging that this session holds the best chance yet for an expanded gambling bill, Thayer said the bill "is not a slam dunk."
The top Democrat in the General Assembly, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, is signaling that expanded gambling might finally get a vote.
"If the House has 'buy-in' with the initial language, then I think if the House gets comfortable with it, it might be that it could pass here fairly easy," Stumbo said.
But gambling is not the first order of business.
Redistricting is on the clock. Before the January 31 candidate filing deadline, lawmakers must perform the contentious duty to redraw state house and senate districts, and congressional districts to reflect the latest census figures.
"The question that I have is can they get through a redistricting process without really injuring the relationships that exist inside and between the chambers before they actually have to do the work that matters to most people which is on the budget?" asked Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who most recently was a top campaign official with the Williams-Farmer ticket.
"We need to move on it as quickly as possible," Stumbo said, "get it behind us and just go on. I mean, you're going to have a lot of people upset about it. Population shifts mean that people move out of districts that they are comfortable with and into districts that they may not be comfortable with. But that's just what the federal courts say we have to do, so we have to do it."
Proponents of the Ohio River Bridges project are banking on the General Assembly to fund Kentucky's half of the newly bifircated plan. In an announcement last week, Indiana agreed to build the east end bridge and associated approaches, while Kentucky agreed to build the downtown bridge and surrounding infrastructure.
Kentucky has already spent about $200 million on the bridges project, but the legislature is being asked to fund about $500 million more of the $1.3 billion Kentucky portion of the project.
"We do have to emphaize that one of the most important steps right now will be in the General Assembly," said U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) at the Thursday news conference.
The announcement made it clear. Indiana is ready to construct the east end bridge. But the downtown bridge and reworked Spaghetti Junction are on track only if Kentucky lawmakers agree to fund that half of the project -- and that appears to be a significant hurdle.
"We don't know what bridges that they're going to toll," Williams explained, "We don't know what their finance plan is. We haven't been informed about it.
The chair of the Senate Republican Caucus - Jefferson County's Dan Seum came right to the point. If Louisville wants to convince lawmakers in other parts of the state to pay for the bridges, proponents must agree to tolls on all four ultimate Louisville bridges, the two new spans, the Kennedy Bridge - and in a change from the most recent plan - tolls on the Sherman Minton Bridge too.
"It's the ugly word, tolls. We're going to have to do it," Seum said. "That's the reality of it, and we can step around and try to make nice with it but that's the reality of that issue."
"I think we're going to have to help ourselves," Seum continued, "Also, being from Jefferson County, remember that I think that most of the tolls would get paid by folks over in Indiana and our tourism and our big trucks. So it won't be as onerous I guess to the average person out there but that's the reality of it."
“The answer to this is the sooner we put the tolls out there, the sooner we start building a bridge,” said Seum.
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Lawmakers convened the 2012 session of the General Assembly on Tuesday and prepared to tackle a litany of divisive issues including legislative and congressional redistricting and a renewed push to allow casino-style gambling in Kentucky.
Throw in the crafting of a lean two-year budget that will likely require further cuts to government agencies and services and lawmakers are certain to face a fiery get-together that will last into April.
"Redistricting is going to be the dominating topic we're going to be concentrating on initially," said House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook. "We're hoping to have that completed and out of the way within the first two weeks."
Gavels fell in the House and Senate shortly after noon on Tuesday signaling the start of the legislative session. One of the first actions was the filing of a proposal that would redraw boundary lines around the state's legislative and congressional districts.
Always divisive, redistricting occurs every 10 years to account for population changes found in the U.S. Census. In Kentucky, lawmakers have sole discretion in changing boundary lines.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said redrawing the political boundaries "is probably one of the most contentious issues the legislature deals with."
"We need to move on it as quickly as possible, get it behind us, and just go on," he said. "You're going to have a lot of people upset about it. Population shifts mean that people move out of districts they're comfortable with and into districts that they may not be comfortable with. That's just what the federal courts say we have to do, so we have to do it."
Senate Republican Floor Leader Robert Stivers of Manchester said he expects his chamber to move "as judiciously as possible" on a bill that already has been filed, but it will undergo changes.
"We're still working on it," Stivers said. "We still have a few decisions left; not a lot."
Sen. Damon Thayer, the Georgetown Republican who chairs the State and Local Government Committee that will be first to vote on the Senate's plan, said "a few little tweaks" remain.
"We'd like to resolve it as fast as possible," Thayer said. "We're Day One here, and we've got to some time."
When that's resolved, lawmakers will focus fully on drafting the budget, which 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.
Gov. Steve Beshear has warned that the upcoming budget cycle could be the "most challenging" yet. The lingering doldrums have 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.
Senate President David Williams said budget negotiations could be tough at a time when cash infusions are needed for the state's education system, pension funds, Medicaid program and transportation projects including the proposed Ohio River bridges at Louisville.
"We have serious and daunting problems in the state of Kentucky financially," he said.
Stumbo told reporters that he believes the House could approve a proposal to allow voters a say in whether to expand gambling opportunities beyond horse races, lotteries and charitable bingo games.
"I think it could pass pretty easily," Stumbo said.
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.
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 by offering the same kinds of gambling here.
"We have a lot of challenges that we need to address in this session, and it seems that some people only want to talk about gambling, when they know that gambling will not solve any problems in the next 18 months and that many of us are convinced that it won't ever solve any problems," Williams said.
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.
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. Thayer said he has been in discussions with Beshear about a proposal that could be introduced in the Senate.
Thayer, a gambling proponent, said he hasn't agreed to be the primary sponsor of such an amendment.
"I told him I needed some time to talk to my caucus, and that's what I intend to do tomorrow," he said.
State Rep. Mike Harmon, R-Danville, said the gambling issue could be politically explosive for House lawmakers who face elections this year. All 100 House seats are up for grabs, though a handful of lawmakers have said they won't seek re-election and others could end up unopposed.
"If we as legislators vote in favor of a constitutional amendment for expanding gaming, that means we support expanded gaming," he said.
Lawmakers will also see pushes to allow charter schools to open in Kentucky and to accept the private University of Pikeville into Kentucky's system of public universities.
Stumbo said Tuesday he's "open to listening" to charter school proposals "because I think any time we have a new idea about educational improvement, we should listen, but I have reservations, because we can't allow our public schools to be impacted negatively." Williams, a longtime proponent of charter schools, said he's hopeful legislation will pass this year.
An independent group began running TV ads across Kentucky on Tuesday in support of charter schools.
Stumbo said he expects to file legislation on Wednesday that would provide public funding for the University of Pikeville. The proposal is to use revenue from coal severance taxes to operate the campus in far eastern Kentucky.