FRANKFORT – In a lot of ways, the early stages of passing a state budget are a lot like buying a car. You hear the sales pitch first, and then you start checking under the hood.
Last week, the Kentucky House’s budget committee began that in-depth review as it questioned administration officials on the finer points of the two-year budget that Gov. Bevin presented late last month. The early analysis shows that there are some sizeable gaps needing further explanation.
The main focus of the governor’s budget is to cut certain areas of spending by nine percent during the next two years and an equivalent amount this fiscal year. However, the governor’s plan is to have his cabinet leaders make these decisions. While the General Assembly believes that a governor should be given leeway in running the Executive Branch, it’s also vitally important that major budgetary decisions like this one have legislative input as well.
That also goes for a proposed $100 million in bonds for workforce development projects not yet specified and taking up to $500 million from a state health insurance trust fund for reasons still unclear.
There is also concern about reducing or flat-lining critical programs at a time when our economy is returning to moderate growth. We really need to ask whether we should keep our per-pupil spending flat for another two years, for example, and make it tougher financially for students pursuing their postsecondary degrees.
Most of the money from the proposed cuts would go to the state’s public retirement systems. Strengthening those systems is something everyone supports, but we need to make sure we don’t do it in a way that harms us more in the short term. It is worth noting that the reforms the General Assembly passed in 2013 are still on track to restore stability for the system used by state employees, and I believe my plan to help teacher retirement is a better long-term solution because of low interest rates. This would have us using bonds that the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System would then invest, a move that would keep the system from having to sell off assets as it is now having to do.
While budget discussions continued last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would tackle the growing problem we are seeing with synthetic drugs such as Flakka, which is plaguing the northeast corner of our state.
Lewis County Sheriff Johnny Bivens said he has never seen a drug quite like it, and it is clear that the synthetic drugs we saw just a few years ago are even more dangerous now. I have worked hard with my House and Senate colleagues to reduce drug abuse of any kind, and hope that we can turn House Bill 4 into law this year. It would really toughen the penalties for those caught selling or possessing synthetic drugs.
In another issue that hits close to home, the House put its unanimous support on Friday behind House Bill 202, which would make it possible for our coal industry to be eligible for the type of economic tax incentives that other companies have long received. This bill, which I am proud to co-sponsor, also would have the state’s Cabinet for Economic Development do whatever else it can to promote coal nationally and internationally.
Two bills clearing the House last week have been through the chamber before.
The first of those, House Bill 70, is a constitutional amendment that, if approved by the General Assembly and then voters in November, would automatically restore voting rights to most felons after they serve all aspects of their sentence. Murder, sexually related offenses, election bribery and treason are among the crimes that would be excluded.
Kentucky has some of the strictest laws when it comes to restoring voting rights, and it affects tens of thousands of citizens who have long paid their debt to society. This measure always draws bipartisan support in the House, and there is growing hope this is the year it will pass the Senate as well.
The other legislation familiar to the chamber, House Bill 50, would authorize public benefit corporations, something already available in about 30 other states. As its name implies, this legal designation would give private businesses a chance to better verify their commitment to serving not just their customers but their community as well.
Public benefit corporations do such things as use local suppliers, maximize recycling and energy-saving measures, donate to charity and give their employees time off to volunteer. While some point out that companies can already do these things, public benefit corporations are required to take an extra step by making sure that their investors and the public are regularly aware of how they are meeting their social responsibilities.
Although it is still relatively early in the legislative process, one bill was signed into law last week. Senate Bill 4 will now require those seeking an abortion to have a face-to-face meeting with their doctor the day before, either in person or via video conferencing. This strengthens a late 1990s law that first established these meetings, but which the courts have since allowed to be done through a recorded phone message. I was proud to champion the bill’s language that promotes the use of telemedicine.
With the legislative session reaching the midway point next week, it is becoming more important than ever to let me know your thoughts or concerns. I have already heard from hundreds, and if you would like to join them, email me at [email protected], or you can leave a message for me or any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.