Saturday, February 21, 2004

Speaker: Tax reform possible

Richards urges Fletcher to send legislature a plan

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - The General Assembly's ranking Democrat said Friday that Gov. Ernie Fletcher should not abandon his pursuit of a new tax code, though he and the Republican governor seemed at an impasse.

"We certainly hope tax reform is not dead. We think it's very important to the state," House Speaker Jody Richards told reporters.

Fletcher wants the General Assembly to enact a new tax code during its 2004 session, which has 28 business days remaining.

Fletcher has described a concept of raising some taxes and cutting others to be "revenue neutral" at the outset. He has disclosed few specifics.

Fletcher met privately on Wednesday with 15 legislators of both parties and both chambers. He said he wanted a second, private meeting with House Democrats to assess whether a consensus on taxes was possible.

Instead, the Democrats sent a letter in which they advised Fletcher to put a plan in writing and present it to the Appropriations and Revenue Committee next week.

A spokesman for Fletcher said the governor would "roll out his plan on his terms," possibly early next week, and that the appropriations committee was not the venue.

Richards repeatedly asserted that he and his colleagues agree that Kentucky's tax code should be rewritten.

"We believe in tax reform. I think that's one place where there's pretty general agreement - that we need tax reform. That's why we're calling on the governor to come forth with his program so we can discuss it," Richards said.

Fletcher "shouldn't be timid or fearful" about defending his ideas before the committee, he said.

Fletcher spokesman Wes Irvin said the governor might be forced to "work unilaterally" with House and Senate Republicans, though he could not explain how that was possible. Republicans hold 36 of 100 seats in the House. They have a 22-16 majority in the Senate.

Irvin seemed especially irritated at Rep. Harry Moberly, the House appropriations committee's chairman. Moberly, D-Richmond, took to the House floor Thursday to accuse Fletcher of "playing political games" and trying to deal in secrecy on "tax modernization."

Moberly did not attend the meeting Wednesday, though Fletcher had been assured he would, Irvin said.

Moberly's speech was "disingenuous," Irvin said. "Representative Moberly needs to show up for work and do the people's business if he's sincere about this."

Moberly said he was detained in a meeting with constituents.

In his speech, Moberly said he and other legislators were being given only "snips and snaps of various information" by the administration and that the tax plan "seems to change day by day."

The House Republican leader, Rep. Jeff Hoover of Jamestown, said his colleagues, too, want some details. But he defended Fletcher's desire for advance consensus, and he said Fletcher had only asked Richards if the Democrats had the "political will and desire" to tackle a sensitive, potentially explosive issue.

"If they would have given any indication to the governor that they were willing to sit down with him and try and reach a consensus or starting point on tax reform, that would have been great," Hoover said.

"They refused to do even that. Now they want to play it out in the public. This governor wants to try and build a consensus before we move forward. That's his style of leadership and they're refusing to cooperate," he said.

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