FRANKFORT – While every two-year budget the General Assembly passes is important, some turn out to be more memorable than the others. I’m confident that the one we approved late Friday night will fall in that category.
I say that for several reasons. First, it marks a major step forward when it comes to stabilizing the retirement systems for our teachers and state workers. These systems have been hit especially hard over the past decade because of recessions, and had we not acted, it could have led to catastrophic results a decade or two from now.
Three years ago, as you may recall, the General Assembly came up with a plan to pay down the long-term liability for the state employee retirement system. This year’s budget maintains that promise and adds tens of millions of dollars more to help it recover faster.
During last year’s session, and this one as well, I sponsored legislation that called for the same long-term stability for our teachers’ retirement system. I’m proud that this budget gets us very close to that goal, and I am confident we will build on that in the years to come.
This budget will require government cuts to make this work, but the House played a leading role in making sure our elementary and secondary schools are not affected, and we also successfully fought to minimize the original cuts that the governor and Senate leaders wanted for higher education.
The House also was successful in passing a major new scholarship that I think could have the same type of academic impact the Kentucky Education Reform Act had in 1990.
The Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program can do that by paying what we call “the last dollar in” to help cover tuition costs for graduating high school seniors going into college this fall.
This scholarship, estimated at $25 million over the next two years, will be based on other scholarships and grants a student receives. This will include KEES, the lottery-based program high schoolers earn with good grades, but not student loans.
The incoming college students will need to attend a public or independent college or university in the commonwealth that awards associate degrees, and he or she will need to take at least 15 credit hours a semester and maintain a 2.5 GPA. There will be provisions for students to pay back a semester’s scholarship if he or she drops out during the time; otherwise, the scholarship is good for four out of six semesters.
In related good news, the budget we approved last week also sets aside more money for the coal-county scholarship program, which over the past several years has helped hundreds of our region’s college students get their four-year degree relatively close to home. I would still prefer a public four-year university here in the mountains, but this is the next best thing and I was proud to sponsor it.
Outside of education, I am also extremely pleased that this budget begins returning more coal severance dollars back to the counties that produce it. Although Governor Bevin vetoed other legislation that would have established a four-year timetable to return all of this money, the budget sets a mechanism in place that will lead us in the same direction. I am committed to doing even more in the next budget cycle.
Locally, the budget and road plan have several things beneficial to Floyd County. The road plan, for example, moves the Mountain Parkway expansion forward significantly, with well over $100 million slated to be spent on it here by the early 2020s.
Another $25.2 million, meanwhile, is set to finish up the Minnie-Harold connector this year, which is great news and the end of a project that has been in the pipeline for quite some time.
The road plan also includes nearly $4 million to improve a curve along KY 122 in McDowell, and $2.8 million for a bridge across Levisa Fork to serve the Big Sandy Wastewater Treatment Plant.
In other news, I made sure the budget included language that will hopefully lead to a re-opened Otter Creek facility in Wheelwright. This is a major priority of mine, and under this budget, the facility could be used to house an overflow of inmates if our county jails become too crowded. Otter Creek could also be used to house elderly or severely ill inmates, who would technically be paroled in an effort to ease the medical costs our prisons are facing. Those convicted of a capital or serious sexual offense would not be eligible for this should it occur, however.
Finally, the settlement from the Purdue Pharma case is slated to benefit us locally, with the budget setting aside $1.3 million for Hope in the Mountains and Mountain Comprehensive Care Center.
Although the budget is complete, it must still be reviewed by the governor, who can choose to sign or reject it or remove portions through a line-item veto. He will have about 10 days to make that decision, but I will do all I can to make sure that he retains all of the new programs I have mentioned.
I want to thank everyone who contacted me this year to let me know their views and concerns. Our time passing laws may be over, but it is never too late to let me know what you think.
My email address is [email protected], and you can leave a message for me or any legislator at 800-372-7181.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.