FRANKFORT – As the General Assembly readies for a return to the Capitol next week to start another legislative session, it is worth taking a look back on what has happened since the last one ended in late March.
This period is known as the interim, and it gives the House and Senate’s two dozen joint committees – plus several temporary ones – time to review the issues affecting the state in a less pressure-filled setting. In some cases, meetings are held across the state.
The Economic Development and Tourism Committee, for example, traveled to Pikeville to discuss tourism. Overall, Kentucky had 20 million visitors in 2014 and saw tourism spending top $13 billion for the first time. State officials said the new Dueling Barrels Distillery in Pikeville and the possibility of a new whitewater rafting season in Breaks Interstate Park are two projects that could help boost these numbers even higher in the years ahead.
At the other end of the state, the Special Subcommittee on Energy stopped by Paducah to discuss whether the commonwealth should reconsider its effective ban on nuclear energy. Officials noted this source provides nearly a fifth of the country’s electricity, while a new generation of reactors is making nuclear energy more accessible. Five are currently being built in other states, which would put the nation’s fleet over 100.
In another energy-related matter, the committee heard testimony showing Kentucky’s schools are far outpacing the national average when it comes to conservation. Between 2008 and 2014, our districts saved $48 million because of these increased efficiencies.
Not surprisingly, our legislative committees use the interim to hear progress reports on new laws, one of which, we found out, is doing even better than expected. Under it, we boosted our tax incentives for the film and television industry, which has since taken note. Just 11 sets of incentives were awarded under the old package between 2009 and 2014, but 17 alone have been approved since April.
This past fall, the Judiciary Committee reviewed the progress of another new law, which on January 1st will broaden civil protective orders to include dating-violence victims and those who have been sexually assaulted or stalked. State officials have been conducting training and increasing awareness since spring, but it is too soon to gauge how many will apply.
That committee also discussed the possibility of acquiring DNA samples from everyone arrested, something already done in 28 other states. This expanded database has been effective elsewhere at solving crimes, with California making 10 matches each day and New Mexico matching nearly 1,000 to crimes since 2006.
In the Education Committtee, legislators reviewed the success of the state’s two specialty high schools that serve some of our smartest students. The Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science at Western Kentucky University has been called the nation’s best high school for three years in a row by Newsweek, while the new Craft Academy for Excellence in Science and Mathematics opened its doors on Morehead State University’s campus in August. Combined, they will have the capacity to serve about 320 students once current expansions are completed.
Some of the other issues reviewed by our legislative committees this year include:
– The success of my 2013 legislation that increased the transparency and accountability of the estimated 1,800 special districts that run our public utilities, libraries, volunteer fire departments and other quasi-government agencies;
– The steep increase in the number of craft beer breweries, which have grown six-fold over the past five years and are looking for tweaks in the law to build on those gains; and
– The growing concern that our current funding model to pay for 911 services relies too much on landlines, which have declined by a fourth since 2000 while wireless users have jumped almost 300 percent. As a result, counties are having to dip into their own general fund to keep this essential service running.
The 15 main House and Senate committees are not the only ones to meet during the interim; there are also nine others that monitor different aspects of state government, from administrative regulations and government contracts to oversight of Medicaid and the state’s tobacco settlement spending.
Several other specialty committees were formed to take in-depth looks at our tourism opportunities, the implementation of this year’s law to combat a heroin epidemic and the impact federal environmental rule changes are having on Kentucky.
With all of this information now in hand, the House and Senate will be better prepared when they convene the 2016 Regular Session at noon on Tuesday next week. Since it will be an even-numbered year, we will meet for 60 working days and adopt a two-year budget to run state government.
I would like to hear from you during this time if you have any concerns or comments you’d like to share. You can reach me by email at [email protected]
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator by phone at 800-372-7181. This message line is available during normal business hours.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.