For all its predictability, the first week of a regular legislative session in Frankfort never loses it ceremony, or its promise that something good can happen before Spring’s first blossom appears. It is a time of organization, anticipation, and hope.
Kentucky state lawmakers convened on Tuesday, Jan. 8 to begin the 30-day, odd-year “short” session that will extend through late March. After newly-elected and reelected lawmakers took the oath of office and newly elected House and Senate leadership took command, we lawmakers were assigned to the committees on which we will likely serve throughout our term. The purpose of the first week of a 30-day short session is to allow both houses of the General Assembly to organize into their respective leadership camps and committees; House and Senate “standing” committees, which only meet during session, are not expected to vote on any legislation until we return from session break on Feb. 5.
When we get back to Frankfort, we will have quite a bit to do. The question we will have to ask ourselves is, given the time constraints of a short session, what needs to be done right now?
Well, that depends on who you ask.
Some lawmakers say we need to spend some time this session finishing the state legislative redistricting process we started during the 2012 Regular Session. That process stalled after legislation that would have redrawn the state district maps went to court, leaving all 100 House districts and 38 Senate districts lines unchanged from the last state legislative redistricting in 2002. No new proposals have been floated to my knowledge. It is likely that any fomented proposals that do make it to a vote this session will have considerable support so new districts can be approved without delay.
Pension reform is one of those issues that just about everyone expects to be on this session’s agenda. A legislative task force approved an eight-point proposal last year that advises paying down the state’s approximately $13.8 billion in unfunded public pension obligations (not including the $12.3 billion in unfunded pension liabilities of the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System). Key points in the proposal include the creation of a new hybrid “cash balance” pension plan for future hires, required payment of the state’s full “ARC”—actuarially required contribution—by fiscal year 2015, and a prohibition against rehiring public employees for up to two years after their retirement.
While broad pension reform is expected this session, so is some action on the state’s retirement plan for state legislators. Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle pre-filed legislation last year for consideration this session that would close the plan to new participants starting later this year. Both lawmakers filing the bills and those who support them hope the proposals demonstrate to Kentucky that members of the House and Senate are not immune to pension reform and willingly accept changes that would improve the state’s fiscal condition.
Readjustment to the so-called “pill mill bill” law that was passed in special session last year may also be in order. Several medical professionals and consumers across the state have expressed dissatisfaction with the effect the law (formally known as House Bill 1) has had on controlled substance prescribing standards and a patient’s ability to receive care, and a special committee heard testimony to that fact during the latter part of 2012. Regulators responsible for putting the law’s mandatory prescribing and dispensing standards into effect submitted proposed regulatory changes to the General Assembly’s administrative agency (the Legislative Research Commission) in December. The proposed changes include exemptions from HB 1 for certain prescriptions (i.e., cough syrup containing the controlled substance codeine), treatment for pediatric patients, and controlled substances that are non-pain medications, such as come ADHD and anxiety medications.
It is unknown at this time what action, if any, will be taken by the General Assembly this session to address concerns with HB 1. A bill has been pre-filed for consideration this session that seeks to address some concerns by changing HB 1’s required mandatory prescribing and dispensing standards to “recommended guidelines”. We will have to see how the issue progresses—along with the session.
Tax reform, as we all know, is another major issue that has been studied in the months leading up to this session. Recommendations for reform were released last month by the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform, but the reaction to those recommendations—which propose lowering some taxes while raising or expanding others—has been mixed. Another factor at play with tax reform is that the passage of any bill that raises or lowers revenue during a 30-day regular session (a non-budget year session, per the state constitution) will require a supermajority of votes in both the House and Senate to get out of the General Assembly and to the governor’s desk. Still, the issue has been getting a lot of attention and will likely continue to as we forge ahead in coming weeks.
Better accountability of special taxing districts, possible expansion of the state Medicaid program, and other matters also await us. Keep reading in the weeks ahead to stay informed on all the latest in Frankfort, and Happy New Year!