FRANKFORT – As the House readies to vote on the state’s budget this week, there are two main priorities that I hope we can maintain in whatever becomes law. I want to protect education from cuts, and I want to make sure our coal counties are able to keep more of the severance tax they generate.
Other House leaders and I think we have a found a way to do both while still making sure our retirement systems for our state employees and teachers have every dollar their actuaries say they need over the next two years.
While Governor Bevin’s proposed budget reduction did not touch the classroom, it did call for tens of millions of dollars in cuts for other areas of education. That’s just not a wise decision in my view, because these programs play a critical role as well.
That definitely includes our family resource and youth services centers, whose staffs rallied with their students in the Capitol last week to celebrate FRYSC’s 25th anniversary. I was proud to talk to the hundreds who had gathered, including several from Floyd County.
I told them that if Governor Bevin’s cuts are allowed, these centers would see their funding reduced to levels they haven’t seen since 2002. I believe we can do better than that.
The same goes for our public universities and colleges. Their funding is already down 16 percent since 2008, and that has led to steep increases in tuition. Morehead State University just announced it is planning on employee furloughs this spring break – though I cautioned them to wait – and other university presidents have said the governor’s cuts would lead to “draconian” action.
In addition to helping the universities’ baseline funding, the House is also prepared to support a plan that would make it possible for our graduating high school seniors to attend a KCTCS school without paying tuition. This program, which is working in a handful of states like Tennessee already, has tremendous potential and could do more than any other law in recent years when it comes to getting our students into college and graduating with a degree. It will be voted on by the entire House this week.
As for coal severance, you may recall that I appeared last month with more than a half-dozen coal-county judge/executives and magistrates before the House budget committee to advocate for returning more severance money to the counties.
Now is an ideal time to make that move, because the state as a whole appears to be rebounding well. In both 2014 and 2015, for example, we were recognized for having more major jobs announcements per person than any other state, and last week, budget officials said we’re still on track to end the fiscal year with a surplus. Our unemployment rate last year, meanwhile, was the lowest in seven years and was better than could be found in nearly 30 other states.
I will discuss the budget more in-depth next week, but as the Senate conducts its review in the days ahead, I want to emphasize that I will fight to keep these proposals intact in what the General Assembly ultimately enacts.
Beyond its work on the budget, the House last week moved forward several major bills, including two I am sponsoring.
The first, which was sent to the Senate on Friday, would make it possible for voters in November to decide whether our communities should be able to implement up to a one-cent local sales tax for projects they approve. This is known by the acronym LIFT, which stands for Local Investments for Transformation, and the temporary tax increase could go toward projects large or small.
My House Bill 278, which should be voted on in the House this week, would raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, where it has been since 2009, to $8.20. The original bill initially called for the rate to go to $10.10 an hour in three annual increments, but in an effort to overcome opposition from some corners, I am trying to compromise by offering a one-time increase instead, in the hope other raises can soon follow.
Several other noteworthy bills making it through the House last week are ready to be considered by the Senate.
With House Bill 217, we would toughen the rules coaches must follow if a player receives a concussion. The student would be barred from returning to play, and if no physician or similar healthcare worker is there to make a diagnosis, the student would be barred from playing or practicing until given written clearance by his or her doctor.
House Bill 413 would crack down on those who sell wireless phone numbers to telemarketers without the subscriber’s written consent, and House Bill 314 would better guarantee that off-duty and retired law enforcement officers can carry concealed firearms anywhere that on-duty officers can.
Fireworks sales would last longer in July and around the New Year’s holiday if House Bill 393 becomes law; and with House Bill 388, social workers would be called upon to make unannounced visits where child abuse or neglect or human trafficking has been reported and an investigation is determined to be necessary.
With only about a dozen working days left, the legislative session has reached the point where the House and Senate will try to find middle ground after weeks of debate on the major issues before us. Your contribution to that effort is important, and I want to thank everyone who has contacted me.
If you would like to take part, my email address is [email protected], and the toll-free line to reach me or any legislator is 800-372-7181.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.