FRANKFORT – Over the past month-and-half, the Kentucky House has been looking for ways to improve Governor Bevin’s budget.
Last week, our chamber accomplished that goal by passing a fiscally responsible spending plan that has less debt and does more for our schools and our public retirement systems.
Before highlighting those changes, I do want to commend the governor for setting the stage to significantly boost our public retirement systems, which are facing long-term liabilities that could be catastrophic in a decade or two if we don’t act now.
At the same time, the governor was not elected superintendent of our schools or president of our colleges and universities. Cutting these two areas of education – his plan would have cost them $300 million – would do far more harm than good and would not be fair at a time when state revenues have returned to more normal growth. The House believes all areas of education should be exempt, not just our elementary and secondary classrooms.
The House also believes we should fully fund the retirement systems for state employees and our teachers. The governor’s plan only included about two-thirds of the cost for our teachers, which would mean their system would have to sell hundreds of millions of dollars in assets to cover its costs. That doesn’t make sense when we have the money in hand.
There are two innovative plans in the House budget that I am especially proud of. Under the first, we fund the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program, which I am sponsoring to help as many as 3,200 students graduating high school this year and who are planning on going to a Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) school this fall.
This would cover the remaining tuition costs the students may have after taking into account all other grants and scholarships they receive. This would make a two-year college degree more affordable and set the stage for them to continue on to complete their bachelor’s degree. At the same time, this would strengthen our college-trained workforce, which is a must in today’s technology-driven economy.
Incidentally, the House budget also includes an extra $1 million each year for our coal-county scholarships, bringing the annual total up to $3 million. This program, which I championed a few years ago, has proven to be extremely helpful to our local college students wanting to complete their four-year degree close to home.
The other major initiative included in the House budget would be especially helpful to our region. In short, it is a four-year plan that would ultimately return all coal-severance dollars to the counties that generate them, as opposed to the current 50-50 split with the state.
Earlier this year, I appeared before the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee with Floyd County Judge/Executive Ben Hale and other county judge/executives to advocate for this plan. Our coal counties need this, because severance revenues have dropped quickly in just five years, putting even basic services at risk. This plan recognizes that, and now is an ideal time to help, because other state revenues have largely rebounded from the recession.
For Floyd County, the extra dollars would mean the county would receive more than $1.5 million over the next two years. This would be split among 35 projects, including $400,000 over the biennium for senior citizens services and $4,000 grants ($2,000 per year) for the county’s fire departments and veterans organizations.
There are some areas where the House agrees with the governor’s budget. For example, we support giving our Kentucky State Police troopers a raise and believe that the training stipend many first responders receive should rise as well and be given to more qualified groups of law enforcement. We also support providing more money for reducing the backlog of untested rape kits.
Although the budget was the high point in the House last week, we also voted for several other bills that would have a positive impact on the state if enacted.
One of those is set to become law and is named after Pike County’s Noah Greenhill, a 9-year-old boy who needs a special food formula costing about $40 a day that his insurer did not cover. This legislation closes that loophole and should help as many as 400 families besides Noah’s. I was proud to work with his family and state Senators Ray Jones and Ralph Alvarado to make this law a reality.
With House Bill 290, which now goes to the Senate, Kentuckians would be able to vote early without an excuse, something nearly 40 other states already allow. This move would almost certainly ease long lines on Election Day and hopefully increase voter turnout.
House Bill 367 would give a financial break to veteran-owned businesses when it comes to the fees they have to pay when filing legal documents with the Secretary of State, and House Bill 563 would increase state oversight regarding the disposal of low-level, naturally occurring radioactive waste generated by oil and natural gas drilling. This problem came to light after two landfills here in Eastern Kentucky were found to have improperly handled this waste. Both of these bills are before the Senate as well.
This week is the last full one during the legislative session, so only a handful of days remain to resolve the budget and the other major issues before us. By this time next week, our work will largely be done. After a 10-day veto recess, we will return in mid-April for the session’s final two days.
It’s not too late to let me know your views, though. If you would like to contact me, my email address is Greg.Stumbo@lrc.ky.gov. You can also leave a message for me or any legislator by phone at 800-372-7181.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.