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Effort To Improve Ky. Schools Seen Mired in Political Power Battle

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With a court-ordered redesign of their schools looming on the horizon, Kentucky lawmakers began last week what could be the most contentious legislative session in the state's history.

Finding remedies for the educational ills that led to last year's landmark state supreme court decision was to have been a topic for resolution in a special session held after next May's primary elections. The court declared the entire Kentucky school system unconstitutional.

But a recent spate of rhetoric by the Governor--and its repercussions in the legislature--has created a volatile political mixture that will make the timing and funding of a school-reform bill, if not its substance, cause for vigorous debate.

One potentially explosive issue, many lawmakers said last week, could be the gubernatorial-succession amendment being heavily promoted by Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson. It could, these legislators said, create a climate so divisive that reaching a consensus with the executive branch on education would be difficult.

Many are predicting that what could unfold is an all-out brawl over the balance of powers between the legislative and executive branches.

Governor Wilkinson, who is suggesting, sources said, that he needs a now-prohibited second term to see through school reform, will be met head-on by a legislature seeking to extricate itself from a long tradition of dominance by the chief executive.

The search for an "efficient system of common schools," which the supreme court placed squarely in the hands of the legislature, is seen as the avenue for doing that.

"Historically, we have been dominated by the executive branch," said Michael R. Moloney, chairman of the Senate budget committee. "This will be a test of whether we have grown up."

"For the first time," said Roger Noe, chairman of the House education committee, "we will be truly exercising legislative independence.''

Others said the legislature's attempt to assert its power might extend to areas beyond education.

Bills on the agenda include a measure that would give the General Assembly more control over road projects, an area that has been used by the executive branch in the past as a major bargaining chip in political maneuvering. Also in the offing are bills to extend legislators' terms, allow the General Assembly to call itself into special session, and switch from biennial to annual sessions.

Legislative leaders conceded that the threat of becoming mired in politics would be great, but said they were determined not to let the historic opportunity to design a completely new school system slip by.

The June 1989 court ruling made Kentucky the first state in the nation to be ordered to refashion not just its education-financing system, but its entire school system.

The heart of that work is now being considered by a task force that includes members of the legislative leadership and representatives from the executive branch. It has been reviewing proposals that will shape the new system, but legislative action is not expected to begin until the panel agrees on a plan.

Sources said such agreement is likely to come sometime in March.

Over the last six weeks, however, a series of statements by the Governor has charged the political atmosphere surrounding reform and other issues, creating tensions that make the forthcoming session appear to many insiders to be one in which cooperative effort will be in short supply.

Much of the tension stems from Mr. Wilkinson's apparent about-face on financing for reform--and what some legislators see as his intransigence over raising needed revenues.

The Governor, who campaigned on a "no new tax" platform, said in mid-December he would veto any broad-based revenue measure, such as an increase in the sales, income, or property taxes.

Instead, he said, he will be considering measures that would tighten exemptions and close tax loopholes. He is expected to reveal the details of his package later this month.

Legislators reacted predictably, saying such measures would not bring in the resources needed to finance a new education system.

But Mr. Wilkinson's counter was not so predictable--or palatable to lawmakers. He implied they might be more concerned about protecting the special interests of lobbyists they drink with at a popular local bar than they are about working people.

"What are they putting in the whiskey at Flynn's these days?" the Governor said, referring to a bar and restaurant near the Capitol.

This angered many legislators,4prompting even the Governor's staunchest supporters to call for an apology. It also fueled the fire for legislative independence.

More jarring to some legislators was Mr. Wilkinson's pronouncement that revenue measures for financing reform ought to be voted on in the regular session, rather than in a special session, even if the actual reform bill was not completed by then.

This was an apparent reversal of his previous position that reform measures should be passed first, before debating the funding question. And legislators said it broke an agreement that the entire package would be taken up in a special session after the May primary elections.

"We were under the understanding that the education issue would not be dealt with in the regular session," explained John A. Rose, president pro tem of the Senate. "But now the Governor has changed his position and is saying that the finance issues will be dealt with in the regular session or not at all."

Jack Foster, Mr. Wilkinson's education adviser, said revenue issues need to be addressed in the regular session because it would be difficult to adopt a budget without the education portion included. The legislature and the Governor need to at least settle on a target figure, he said, and make a budget adjustment later if needed.

Both the Governor's aide and the president pro tem said the question of timing would be the first reform-related issue to be resolved.

The political fallout from the battle over succession could also be a factor in adopting any reform or revenue measure, several legislators said.

The Governor has said he wants a succession amendment, last defeated in the Senate in 1988, and he is reportedly planning several speaking engagements to stir up grassroots support for the idea. He is also expected to air television commercials on the subject funded by his political action committee.

There is little support for such an amendment in the legislature.

"If the Governor makes a big push for succession and is not successful," said Senator Rose, "I think it has the potential to carry over to the education debate."

But Mr. Foster of the Governor's staff disputed that notion, saying that lawmakers keep "throwing up succession and it is irrelevant to the education debate."

"What happens with succession will not affect the Governor on education," he insisted. "We need each other to get things done, and succession or no succession, we will get the job done."

Meanwhile, the Governor and others have expressed satisfaction with the substance of the proposals being considered by the task force.

The most concrete to date have been forwarded by David Hornbeck, a consultant from the Washington-based law firm of Hogan & Hartson hired to advise the panel's curriculum subcommittee. Some are predicting that his proposals will form the basis for the eventual plan.

The blueprint put together by Mr. Hornbeck, a former Maryland state school superintendent, relies heavily on a system of rewards and sanctions for instructional personnel at individual schools.

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