We’re in the homestretch of the 2016 session of the Kentucky General Assembly with just a handful of days to go, but as all good horse-racing fans know, the last quarter mile can often seem the longest and most difficult.
The process is working as expected, though, as members appointed by senior leadership in both the House and Senate continue to seek a compromise on the state’s next two-year budget in a conference committee delegated to that task. At issue are the considerable differences in the two spending plans recently passed in each chamber.
I will admit I was disappointed this week when the Senate passed a budget plan that embraces Gov. Bevin’s call for major cuts to Kentucky’s colleges and universities, including a 4.5 percent cut in the current fiscal year and nine percent cuts in each of the next two fiscal years. These cuts had been restored in the House budget passed last week, as we sought to help stem the tide of tuition increases that are saddling too many young people with enormous debt, and assist these institutions for higher learning that have endured more than $173 million in recession-era cuts since 2007.
Gone, too, from the Senate’s plan are funds the House has restored to assist with dropout prevention, textbook purchases and professional training for teachers, as well as funds to expand preschool opportunities to more working families. The House’s new “Work Ready” Scholarship Program, passed overwhelmingly in our chamber, was also removed by the Senate. This exciting initiative seeks to assist more than 3,200 high school students attend a KCTCS college this fall tuition-free. “Work Ready” would also assist the Commonwealth in its efforts to create a reliable, well-trained workforce, something Kentucky’s business community continues to express as a major priority.
It’s my hope that steps will be taken in the conference committee to soften the blow of some of these cuts so that we can invest in Kentucky’s future and provide the education and workforce development opportunities necessary to help our economy grow.
Compromise will also be necessary to iron out differences in the $4.8 billion road plan approved earlier this week by the Kentucky House and the one advocated by the Senate. Key projects in the House road plan include: $159 million in federal funds to continue the expansion of the Mountain Parkway, begun in 2014, and to plan an expansion of the parkway from Prestonsburg to Beckley, West Va.; funds to begin design on the upgrade of the Hal Rogers Parkway from Somerset to Hazard; funds for an interchange on I-65 in Bullitt County; funds to begin work to upgrade the Natcher Parkway to interstate standards between Owensboro and Bowling Green; preconstruction for a new I-69 bridge at Henderson; preconstruction work on the Heartland Parkway in Marion and Taylor counties; and funding to widen I-75 in Rockcastle County and I-64/I-75 in Fayette County.
With all this attention to Kentucky’s bottom line, there’s also a flurry of activity as we work in committee and on the House floor to reconcile differences and consider approval of dozens of bills flowing back and forth between the two legislative chambers.
On Monday, we passed legislation that would add Kentucky to a list of 49 other states that have made it a felony to possess, breed, sell or otherwise handle dogs for the purpose of dog fighting. House Bill 428, sponsored by Rep. Wilson Stone, would not apply to hunting dogs, dogs that guard livestock, service dogs or companion dogs. Dog fighting is already illegal in Kentucky, but this legislation provides language that makes it easier for law enforcement and the courts to apprehend and prosecute those involved in this unethical practice. The legislation passed 97-0 and now moves to the Senate for action.
A bill aimed at increasing governmental transparency passed favorably out of the Senate Committee on State and Local Government on Tuesday. House Bill 80, sponsored by Rep. Chris Harris, narrows open records exemptions for private firms providing public services. The bill would require entities offering services traditionally performed by government agencies and receiving at least a quarter of their revenue from taxpayers to adhere to the same open records laws as their government counterparts. The legislation, which recently passed the House on a 92-0 vote, now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
On Wednesday, we approved legislation that could increase felony convictions for DUI offenders by allowing the courts to “look back” at 10 years of prior convictions. Kentucky law requires those convicted of a fourth offense DUI within five years to be charged with a felony. Under current law, the clock for determining penalties for offenders is reset after five years. Senate Bill 56 would extend that so-called “look-back” period to allow more habitual offenders to face stiffer penalties. The measure passed 98-0 and now goes to the governor for his signature.
We also took a stand in support of maintaining KyNect and the expansion of Medicaid services in the Commonwealth by voting in support of House Bills 5 and 6, respectively, sponsored by state Rep. Darryl Owens of Louisville. A new national study released just week confirms our support of these initiatives by demonstrating how states that have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act are saving more money than states that denied the additional health coverage. Gov. Bevin’s administration has stated its intent to change the delivery of Medicaid services in Kentucky and dismantle KyNect, the state’s nationally recognized, award-winning program that has greatly reduced the rate of uninsured Kentuckians, created thousands of new jobs and allowed more than 500,000 Kentuckians to gain access to health insurance. Both measures now move to the Senate.
Other bills approved in the House include House Resolution 232, which focuses on the need for more commercial truck parking near Kentucky’s interstates. The resolution also encourages law enforcement to enforce existing law against illegal parking to help prevent accidents along Kentucky’s interstates. Additionally, House Bill 273 creates a task force to develop legislation that would address the disclosure of air ambulance costs to consumers. While these services are indeed life-saving, consumers are sometimes left with large, unmanageable bills not covered by insurance. Both measures are sponsored by Rep. Tom McKee and now go to the Senate for its consideration.
As we are nearing the finishing line on this legislative session, I hope you’ll contact me with your opinions and suggestions by emailing [email protected] or calling the Legislative Message Line toll-free at 1-800-372-7181. Throughout this session, I’ve sought to represent the interests of Harlan and Perry counties in the 84th House District and thank you for this opportunity to serve.