Local senator, representative talk more than budget, pension
Published 8:00 am Saturday, March 3, 2018
The Kentucky General Assembly has been in session since January and two issues have dominated the headlines.
One is the state pension crisis and its $43 billion shortfall. As proposals have been offered, teachers and other state workers have made their thoughts and opinions well known to legislators while they work to prepare a bill to present.
The other, which is somewhat intertwined with the pension, is the task of developing a state budget for the next two years. Rumblings of new taxes, tax reform and revenue are all part of the discussion.
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Those two issues are enough to fill most of the 60-day session for Kentucky’s 100 representatives and 38 senators. But there are plenty of other issues before legislations from criminal justice to child welfare to health care.
It’s a lot to discuss before the session ends in April.
During the General Assembly’s 60-day session in even numbered years, the state House of Representatives is charged with developing and presenting a budget.
Thursday night, the House approved its bill 68-25 to send it to the Senate for its consideration. The bill would fund the state pension system and education while adding taxes on prescription opioids, increasing the sales tax on cigarettes and eliminating the individual income tax credit. The taxes are estimated to generate $500,000 over two years, according to published reports.
“We literally looked at every single line of expenditures and analyzed what we need to keep in our budget or if it was taken out, if it needs to go back in,” said state Rep. Donna Mayfield (R-Winchester). “There’s so much we need and only so much money.
“No one likes raising taxes and increasing fees, but Kentucky is in more dire straits than many know.”
Gov. Matt Bevin proposed another budget which called for sweeping budget cuts of 6.25 percent including to education and to the state police.
Mayfield said the House bill included additional funding for vehicles and weapons for the Kentucky State Police, citing reports some KSP cruisers have more than 200,000 miles and troopers are using Vietnam-era weapons.
“They’ve got to be able to rely on their vehicles as well as weapons to defend us,” Mayfield said. “They make such a sacrifice for us anyway.”
With the budget bill now in the hands of the Senate, it could change significantly.
“Our main priority is to get the budget done,” state Sen. Ralph Alvarado (R-Winchester) said. “If you think the pension discussions are tough, tax discussions are larger and more complex.”
Alvarado said he’s heard talk there may be a tax reform package coming from the House, but nothing has been presented yet.
“They’re being very tight-lipped about it,” he said.
Both said an agreement on the budget may come down to a compromise hammered out by a conference committee with representatives of both parties.
The other overwhelming issue is the state’s massive $43 billion pension deficit, which affects teachers as well as state, county and some city employees throughout Kentucky.
For many years, the state legislature hasn’t made full payments into the system to keep it afloat, which left it in its current state.
A number of proposals have gone back and forth in recent months, with Bevin’s original plan to shift teachers to a 401(k) style retirement plan instead of a pension and suspending cost of living increases for five years.
Senate Bill 1, as filed this session, would retain the COLA increases, though at a lower rate, and would let teachers with 20 or more years of experience keep their pensions while newer hires would participate in a “hybrid” plan.
“What we’re trying to do is maintain a viable pension system going forward,” Alvarado said. “If we do nothing, it falls apart.”
The plan, he said, would pay off the shortfall over the course of the next 27 years.
Like the budget, there will be discussions to come from the other chamber.
“They used a lot of collaboration between the two houses on the bill, as well as Gov. Bevin’s proposal from last year,” Mayfield said. “We looked at that line by line and made our requested changes. Ultimately, both of these bills will come down to a conference committee with members from both parties to make a compromise.”
All other bills and legislation can easily fall under the shadow of the budget and pension discussions.
“Those two always consume the oxygen in the room,” Alvarado said.
Still there are others making their way through the legislative process in Frankfort.
Mayfield has been working on a bill for adoption and foster care reform, which cleared the House Wednesday. If approved by the Senate, it would add $86 million to the state budget to add 350 social workers and streamline the process for adoption from foster care, she said.
“There are so many responsibilities … (social workers) are simply overrun,” Mayfield said. “They are sitting in court and they can’t do their (case) input. Hiring more people spreads the caseload around. It is so hard to keep social workers because they just get burned out.”
It would also simplify the processes by eliminating duplication within the system.
“We have kids that are waiting three and four years to be adopted,” she said. “With kids that age, they need to be in their forever home with a family that loves them.”
In January, both the Senate and the House approved Marsy’s Law, which could amend the state constitution. It would create a crime victim’s bill of rights to include being notified of all court proceedings and the right to be heard at change-of-plea or sentencing hearings. They would also be protected from the accused.
Alvarado, a medical doctor by trade, is particularly interested in a telemedicine bill for Medicare patients. If approved, it would allow patients to confer with doctors over secured Internet connections for treatment, rather than going to the emergency room.
The bill, which Alvarado sponsored, has already cleared the Senate.
With nearly 900 bills filed this session, there are plenty of others. Mayfield filed a bill to increase the penalties for people convicted of using their cell phones while they drive. There are others, Alvarado said, including one to require pharmacies to offer or sell items to safely dispose of narcotic medication.
There’s another to move state elections onto the presidential election cycle beginning in 2024.
Mayfield is pushing a resolution to encourage Kentucky’s Congressional delegation to vote on a measure to pass a bill restricting Internet advertisers that are covers for human and sex trafficking rings.
“Congress has the bill to stop it from happening,” she said. “Many states have already requested Congress to act and stop it.”
Not enough time
Regardless of how many bills there are, the General Assembly has a 60-day limit for the session. The end would come somewhere in the middle of April. Many bills won’t make it out of committee, especially in a session dominated by the budget and the pension.
There is always next year when legislators return to Frankfort for a shorter session.