FRANKFORT – Sometimes during a legislative session, votes are taken in one chamber with everyone knowing the bills will never be approved in the other.
Legislators nonetheless take these stands to underscore just how important the issue at hand is to them, and to make sure the public knows they made a sincere effort to address a pressing matter.
Last week in the Kentucky House, we had not one but three of those votes, and I was proud to sponsor or co-sponsor each bill and explain why we think their passage is critical.
The first is my House Bill 1, which calls for the General Assembly to declare that it would provide every dollar the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System (KTRS) says it needs going forward.
This is admittedly a tough challenge, given the size of the unfunded liability in the system, but that just underscores the need to act sooner rather than having the state keep avoiding the cost.
The House understands the importance of doing this, which is why our budget proposal was the only one that made these full payments. My hope is that, as other legislative leaders and I work on a final budget this week, we can keep that promise in the two-year spending plan the General Assembly ultimately approves.
The other two votes center on what I call Beshearcare. Our goal in this case is to protect and preserve Kynect – the nationally recognized program that has helped hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians get health insurance – and the expansion of Medicaid.
Because both of these actions were done by executive order, they can be easily rescinded by another executive order. We in the House want to make sure these programs remain strong from one administration to another.
Kynect is most at risk, because Governor Bevin is already working to dismantle it and return Kentuckians to the national healthcare website. Such a move, though, takes away hundreds of state workers who have been so instrumental in helping people get the services they need. Turning these citizens over to the federal system will undoubtedly lead to tremendous confusion and could cause many to fall through the cracks. We need to avoid that.
Since the General Assembly will not finish its work until mid-April, there is still a chance the state Senate will take up one or more of these bills, although that seems unlikely.
As we wait to see if that occurs, the biggest task in front of us is getting a budget passed and sent to the governor.
Other legislative leaders and I started discussions last Thursday, and while there was some major agreement, there were also some major differences.
The biggest divide centers on education, which in the House is a top priority. We believe that nothing helping students – from preschool to postsecondary – should be cut. Reducing education spending is short-sighted when the economy is in recession and hard decisions have to be made, but it is especially wrong when normal growth has returned, as it has for Kentucky.
The House budget is also the only one that provides both retirement systems with every dollar they say they need over the next two years without having to continue selling assets to meet monthly expenses. The retirement system for teachers, as I alluded to earlier, has had to sell more than it has gotten from the state over the last several years. That’s a trend we have to stop.
That’s also why the House does not agree with the governor’s and Senate’s plans to have hundreds of millions of dollars sitting idle in a bank account, neither helping fund state programs nor paying down the state’s future costs. We need a healthy “Rainy Day” fund for emergencies, but not one as large as they propose, and there is no need to hold dollars for future pension costs when the need for them now is so great.
As budget talks continued, the House and Senate did agree on two major bills last week. Under the first, Senate Bill 56, we crack down on repeat DUI offenders by doubling the look-back period from five years to 10. Under current law, these offenders aren’t charged with a felony until the fourth offense, and those have to occur within a five-year period.
With House Bill 309, the state will soon have another major economic development tool known as public-private partnerships, or P3. In short, this will streamline how the state and local governments team up with the private sector to carry out a public function, from building large bridges to running a utility.
With the federal government providing much less help these days, this has become the only viable way to get some of these projects done. P3 might be the tool we need if we are to continue the Mountain Parkway project to Beckley, West Virginia, giving us the route east we need.
I will cover the outcome of the budget in next week’s column and highlight other issues as well. For now, I want to thank everyone who has contacted me this legislative session. If you’d like to reach me now or throughout the year, my email is [email protected] You can also leave a message for me or any legislator at 800-372-7181.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.