As work on the House budget plan continued this week, the state’s chief judicial officer warned that the public’s access to justice could be crippled later this year under Gov. Bevin’s proposed spending cuts.
During testimony before the House Budget Subcommittee on Justice and the Judiciary, Chief Justice John D. Minton, Jr., of the Supreme Court of Kentucky cautioned that the administration’s call for a 4.5 percent cut to the state’s court system in this fiscal year would likely close courts for up to three weeks before June 30th.
Additional cuts of nine percent in each of the next two fiscal years would result in “massive reductions in the workforce” and jeopardize important judicial reforms and services that help protect our communities.
Such deep cuts are alarming and unacceptable. When the court doors close, criminals cannot be brought to justice, important business deals are delayed, and caseloads pile up in adoption, custody and child support cases. Routine services, like renewing a driver’s license or filing a small claim, are also interrupted. Local commerce suffers, too, especially in rural areas, where downtown businesses rely heavily on the foot traffic that Kentuckians traveling to and from the courthouse provide.
Our duty in the House over the next few weeks will be to create a spending plan that provides an alternative to the devastating, across-the-board cuts the Bevin budget levels not only on our court system, but to the state’s ability to provide health care for our seniors, human services to the most vulnerable, affordable college tuition, and quality K-12 public education.
While our work on this front continues, so does our job as watchdog to ensure this administration continues to provide important consumer protections enacted by the legislature in sessions past. House Bill 408, for example, sponsored by Rep. Chris Harris of Forest Hills, seeks to clarify a 2012 law that requires life insurance companies to make a reasonable effort to let beneficiaries know if there was a life insurance policy in their loved one’s name. This legislation was made necessary in part when the new Department of Insurance Commissioner recently decided to drop defense of the statute – called the Unclaimed Life Insurance Benefits Act – just weeks before it was to be argued before the Supreme Court of Kentucky.
Although the 2012 law received unanimous, bipartisan support in both chambers, it was challenged in court by several life insurance companies opposed to making good on the policies they sold. House Bill 408 makes it clear that the protections for beneficiaries apply to policies sold before and after 2012. The bill was approved overwhelmingly today in an 84-0 vote.
The number of bills moving through the committee process is increasing, including several successful initiatives aimed at increasing support, recognition and justice for our front-line defenders. House Bill 276, co-sponsored by state Rep. Will Coursey of Benton, would allow public universities to offer in-state tuition to members of any United States Reserve component. House Bill 194, sponsored by state Rep. Dean Schamore, would create a POW/MIA special license plate, with extra fees used for the National League of POW/MIA Families in Kentucky. Additionally, individuals convicted of attempted murder of a peace officer or firefighter would be required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence under House Bill 137, sponsored by state Rep. Gerald Watkins. All three measures were reported favorably out of committee this week and are slated for action on the House floor.
We also heard requests this week from county judge-executives representing the Eastern and Western coalfields to increase the amount of coal severance tax money returned to their regions of the state. Since the start of the fiscal year last July, total coal severance revenues have declined by more than 27 percent over the previous fiscal year and, in some coal counties, the amount of coal and mineral revenues are down 80 percent from seven years ago. In the House Appropriations & Revenue Committee, county leaders said an increased return on revenue is necessary to help fund services previously mandated by the state, such as local fire departments, 911 services, senior citizens centers and animal shelters. While the coal industry is on the decline, these regions of the state have made it possible for the entire Commonwealth to benefit from low electrical rates for generations, and it’s imperative we find a way to assist these communities as they work to diversify their economy.
During the committee meeting on coal severance, it was good to have on-hand Perry County Judge-Executive Scott Alexander and Harlan County Magistrates David Kennedy, Bill Moore and James Howard. Also, the Harlan County Boys & Girls Club came and saw me about their concerns. This week, I was also fortunate to have three great pages from Perry Central High School: Laken Walker, Katie Fields and Vada Miller. All three students are 10th graders who were driven up to Frankfort by Amos Walker. It’s always good to have people from home at their House!
In action on the House floor this week, we also approved several bills that have now moved on to the Senate for action. They include:
*House Bill 41, sponsored by Rep. Joni Jenkins of Louisville, a measure that would allow victims of domestic violence to get out of a lease with at least 30 days’ notice to their landlord;
*House Bill 38, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Donohue of Louisville, a bill that would require the state to set operation and safety standards for zip lines and canopy tours;
*House Bill 120, sponsored by Rep. Linda Belcher of Shepherdsville, a bill to prohibit the use of a drone to harass, act as a voyeur, or commit a burglary.
Our pace is quickening here, and your comments and suggestions are as welcome as ever. If you need to reach me while we are in session, please email [email protected] or call the Legislative Message Hotline at 1-800-372-7181. It’s a privilege to represent the people of Harlan and Perry counties in the 84th House District and I look forward to hearing from you soon.