What legislators accomplished despite governor
I am penning this legislative update one day after decompressing from a hectic final two days in the 2021 legislative session.
The General Assembly burned the midnight oil in the last 48 hours to complete an extensive amount of work. As is customary, the final days of the legislative process required a lot of “hurry up and wait” as careful procedural coordination is needed between the House and Senate to pass the final bills up for consideration legally. However, the brief pauses in this process did allow me to enjoy the pleasant weather on my trips from my legislative office to the Senate Chamber in the State Capitol. After a rough stretch of winter, I hope you were able to enjoy some of the sunshine and warmth as well. However, when all was said and done, I left Frankfort in the wee hours of Wednesday morning with a sense of pride in what the General Assembly was able to accomplish.
Much of the work during the final two days of the session was considering whether or not to override vetoes issued by the governor. In the end, the legislature successfully overrode over two dozen of the governor’s vetoes. I want to highlight a number of those in this week’s legislative update and share with you some information on the appropriation of funding for some exciting initiatives that will make Kentucky stronger. But first, I want to mention a bill that was not subject to a governor’s veto but made final passage.
House Bill (HB) 91 is a constitutional amendment that Kentucky voters will now consider on the 2022 general election ballot. If supported by a majority of the voters, the amendment would add a new section to the Constitution of Kentucky stating that it does not secure or protect the right to abortion or funding of abortion. HB 91 makes sure a rogue court does not disenfranchise Kentucky and that it is the General Assembly that makes the law concerning the lives of our most vulnerable citizens, unborn human children. I encourage your support of this constitutional amendment when you cast your vote next year.
Because of the governor’s political approach and lack of communication with the General Assembly, none of his vetoes came as a surprise. However, what was a bit mystifying was the governor’s lack of sound reasoning to back up his veto messages. That was especially true for his veto of this Senate Bill (SB) 65, which nullifies specific administrative regulations that the legislature found deficient. Most notably, SB 65 advocates for children and their custodial parents by holding noncustodial parents who are delinquent in their court-ordered child support accountable. The legislature found a regulation filed by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services deficient because it allowed Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (formerly known as food stamps) to noncustodial parents who were delinquent in their court-ordered child support.
This regulation does not serve Kentucky’s children and families well because it completely ignores that Kentucky is one of the nation’s worst states regarding its child support enforcement program. It further neglects recognizing a noncustodial parent’s responsibility to support their biological children through a lawfully issued court order. A recent informational release from the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office shows that over 3,400 people in that county alone owe more than $3,000 in child support. The list equates to over $89 million in missing payments.
In 2018, over 100,000 single-parent families were receiving SNAP benefits in Kentucky. Of these families, only 21% received any child support payments. Other states have incorporated child support compliance into their SNAP eligibility requirements with little to no additional administrative costs. For example, Kansas increased its child support collections by nearly 40% when implementing a similar policy.
Kentucky is a state that values and supports parents providing for their children by cooperating with their child support obligations. We oppose providing precious taxpayer-funded public assistance benefits to reward individuals who break the law by making no effort to support their own children through court-ordered child support obligations. If the governor wants to support reforms to allow these tax dollars to follow the child they are intended for, I am willing to work to do that. However, the regulation issued by his administration is terrible public policy. The Constitution of Kentucky tasks the Kentucky General Assembly as the policy-making branch of state government. I am proud of the action taken in SB 65 to rid our state of this administration’s counterintuitive and careless administrative regulation that rewards deadbeat parents and ignores the children they have left behind.
The governor also vetoed House Bill 563, a bill that provides a historic opportunity to shift the focus of the state’s education system to better meet Kentucky’s children’s needs. The bill promotes flexibility and education choices to Kentucky residents and addresses disparities in students’ educational options. The bill stipulates that pupil funding through the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) program would follow any eligible school student. HB 563 also seeks to create Education Opportunity Accounts (EOA) to provide parents of any eligible Kentucky child the tools they need to improve their child’s education.
As with many things, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified calls for changing how Kentucky approaches our children’s education, specifically for providing more parental choice. Despite CDC guidance, schools have remained closed to in-person learning, and failing grades soar across the commonwealth. Many of the state’s 647,000 students have limited access to the educational opportunities they need to achieve their potential. However, before the pandemic, our normal school system’s one-size-fits-all approach had proven difficult for some families to navigate and produced lackluster results despite billions in state budget investments.
HB 563 would allow SEEK funds to follow a student to other public school districts. This would enable parents greater flexibility in choosing which district and school better serve their children’s needs. The bill also seeks to eliminate financial barriers to education access by creating the Education Opportunity Account (EOA) Program to help eligible families attain the education they choose for their children. EOAs apply to rural, urban and suburban students and can benefit students from all backgrounds. Accounts would be operated by a third-party, non-profit account granting organization that would receive and distribute financial donations based on needs-based eligibility criteria to help individual Kentucky K-12 students’ with education costs. Donations would be eligible for a tax credit of up to $1 million with a cap of $25 million in one fiscal year. Eligibility for a family to tap into the money to help pay for school expenses would be capped at 175% of the reduced-price lunch threshold. Students could utilize these funds for many things, including textbooks, online learning programs, summer or after school learning programs, transportation to school, career and technical education sources, tutoring services, tuition for a private school in counties with a population of 90,000 or more, tuition for attendance at out-of-district public schools and much more.
Despite misinformation from those opposed to the bill, no money is diverted from public schools. If anything, this bill can provide an additional $25 million for our students’ education. After all, the billions we put into public education every single budget (over 41% of the entire state budget goes to K-12 education alone) and the additional $2 billion-plus coming from the federal government in the recent stimulus is all to educate our students in public schools. Furthermore, the EOA provision will sunset after five years, requiring legislative action to be maintained. That will be a timeframe in which we can analyze the benefits of EOAs in Kentucky. They have proven effective in other states such as Florida, where student success has improved—particularly for less privileged children—and overall costs have decreased.
School choice already exists for families who are financially well off. They can afford the education they want for their children. I often share my story about how my parents sacrificed to make sure I had the best education possible. I was blessed that my parents were able to do that for me. That’s not the case for a lot of Kentucky students. This is true in both urban and rural areas. HB 563 is for those children who deserve the same options and choices.
Other overrides of the governor’s vetoes included:
SB 93, which provides the Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner with authority to appoint members of the State Board of Agriculture. In the governor’s veto message, he argued that the bill “undermines the importance of agriculture” and violates the Constitution of Kentucky by removing his ability to make the appointments. The governor is correct about agriculture being vitally important to Kentucky. For that reason, this vital industry deserves the expertise of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture to oversee it. The governor’s veto message is wrong on the bill’s constitutionality in two significant ways: 1. The state constitution explicitly tasks the agriculture commissioner to promote the interests of agriculture and horticulture, agricultural revenues, and the protection of Kentucky’s livestock industries. 2. Statutory law is the legislature’s constitutional purview.
SB 165 is another bill aiming to improve government transparency and accountability by providing the Kentucky state treasurer with the ability to approve, revise, or deny state contracts if the legislative Government Contract and Review Committee find them questionable. There have been several concerning contracts over the years. This bill respects taxpayer dollars and puts in place better oversight to ensure the legitimacy of state contracts.
SB 251 provides the Kentucky Attorney General venue flexibility in addressing the constitutionality of statutes. Most importantly, it rightfully prioritizes the constitutional concerns of citizens of the commonwealth over the state’s convenience. Currently, all constitutional challenges of law or regulations must be heard in the Franklin Circuit Court. This bill levels the playing field for the people of Kentucky by acknowledging that laws and regulations reach beyond the borders of the county seat of the state government. The rights of Kentuckians from Pikeville to Paducah can be negatively impacted. A single court should not hold such immense power over the numerous other courts and qualified judges in the state. The governor’s veto message insists that the Attorney General would “forum shop” for friendly judges without any evidence to point to. It is an interesting accusation that borders on projection. This governor has routinely taken advantage of the Franklin County super circuit and a friendly judge who was once removed from a case involving this governor following the Supreme Court of Kentucky chief justice recognizing concerns with the judge’s impartiality.
House Joint Resolution (HJR) 77 was vetoed by the governor even though it extends some of the agreeable executive orders he has issued in response to COVID-19. It is further proof the legislature can and should have a seat at the table as life-altering decisions are made. The governor takes issue with the legislature’s oversight of his unilateral actions, which is why he keeps filing lawsuits in the Franklin Circuit Court every time the legislature passes a bill he does not like. Alarmingly, in the governor’s line-item vetoes of the state budget bill, he even insinuated the legislature could go to jail for simply conducting the powers to pass laws and appropriate funds granted to the legislative branch in the Constitution of Kentucky.
HB 258 brings overdue reforms to the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System (KTRS) for future hires only. It will be a considerable step toward stabilizing the system to ensure that our teachers have benefits they can rely on upon their retirement. KTRS has long been free of any reforms despite the various reforms passed addressing concerns with the other seven state employee retirement systems. The new reforms bring the system for new hires more in line with the benefits other state employees get. It raises the minimum retirement age from 55 to 57, bases benefits on the final five years of service rather than three, prevents second retirement accounts from being opened following an initial retirement and the re-employment, and prohibits KTRS from making retroactive changes to benefits. This reform is set to save billions of dollars. HB 258, in unison with the General Assembly’s supermajority providing historic levels of additional funding to the system over the last few years, are the types of steps necessary to shore up KTRS.
I have significant updates to provide you on budget appropriations. The General Assembly approved multiple beneficial appropriations in the final two days of the session. Some of this is the result of funding provided through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021. It took some time to get information on how the state is authorized to allocate these funds. Fortunately, we were able to appropriate around $1.3 billion of those funds before the session’s close. New expenditures in the state budget, perhaps most notably, included $140 million to fund all-day kindergarten, which was placed into HB 382. This funding came from discussions on HB 563 and proved the General Assembly’s commitment to education. It also demonstrates the legislature’s willingness to work with the governor’s administration, despite his refusal to open lines of communication.
You may be thinking, “Students are already attending all-day kindergarten.” You are correct. Currently, school districts have managed to fund all-day kindergarten with the appropriations provided. This $140 million will help cover those costs and could open up available funds for the school districts to utilize in other ways. Early childhood education is of great importance, which is a good step toward improvement in that area. On a related note, $127 million in ARPA funds has been allocated to the School Facilities Construction Commission to help urgent-need schools. $75 million from the general fund is going to the local vocational education centers’ construction pool.
Lawmakers approved $300 million of ARPA funding for broadband expansion. $50 million will be available immediately for economic development projects. Along with this allocation, the legislature put safety and oversight mechanisms and measures to enhance this investment. They include establishing Public Service Commission oversight of performance levels, setting parameters for how the funding must be used for areas most in need, and enabling Distribution Cooperatives to participate in the broadband funding.
Twenty million dollars was appropriated for rural hospitals’ revolving loan funds. As chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, I am pleased to see some funds used in this way. In light of recent concerns that other lawmakers and I have heard from local officials, nearly $6 million has been allocated for $2 per diem COVID costs for our county jails. $30 million has been provided for the county jail performance pilot program. $50 million has been directed for grants to provide drinking water to areas in need, with an additional near $50 million for grants to counties with costs greater than allocations provided. Substantial investments in our infrastructure were of fundamental importance in our appropriation of available ARPA funds.
The state’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) crisis remains at the forefront of our attention, especially those Kentuckians who have yet to receive their much-needed UI benefits. To help our small businesses facing a substantial UI rate increase, the General Assembly chose to utilize $575 million in ARPA funding as loan repayment for the more than $800 million loan the governor took from the federal government. Millions in funding were also provided for hiring additional personnel as well.
As is my custom, I will provide a legislative update to the community in the near future. Please watch for the announcement if you would like to attend, tune in, or ask questions. I will also try to provide updates to our fiscal courts and city commissions.
In closing, I want to congratulate the George Rogers Clark High School men’s basketball team for making the Sweet 16 this year and for their victory in the first round this past Wednesday over Oldham County High School. What a thrill it must be to represent our county and play in Rupp Arena! My submission of this legislative update is just before GRC’s matchup with Elizabethtown on Friday, April 2, so I am unaware of the result. I wish the team continued success on what is already a successful season to be proud of.
Should you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to call me about these issues or any other public policy issue toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 or email me at Ralph.Alvarado@LRC.ky.gov. It has been an honor to represent District 28 during the 2021 Legislative Session. Be safe. God bless.