The first week or two of a legislative session may seem slow at first glance, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of these opening days.
That’s because this is the time when legislators and the governor alike lay out their priorities, setting the stage for what we hope can be accomplished by the time we finish our work, which this year will be on April 15th.
Since this is an even-numbered year, passing a budget to run state government will understandably be the main focus. The House will begin tweaking the governor’s proposal after he delivers it later this month, and while moderate growth is forecast for the next two years, there is already a long list of needs in such areas as education, healthcare and our public pension systems.
Despite these challenges, the House and Gov. Beshear are committed to doing what we can to boost education spending. While we have been able to largely shield this area from cuts over the last six years, it is becoming clear that more must be done before we risk losing the progress we have made.
Beyond the budget, two of my top priorities this legislative session are raising the state’s minimum wage and making permanent a pilot program that uses coal severance tax money to help college students in the coal regions complete their four-year degree.
To underscore its importance, I have made the effort to raise the minimum wage House Bill 1. The need to take this step became all too clear when I read an op/ed in this newspaper around Christmas. That writer noted that there is broad, bipartisan support across the country for increasing this wage, which can be seen in the recent vote New Jersey took to boost its minimum wage significantly.
There are also studies showing that such a move here would not only help minimum wage workers; it also would provide a positive benefit to our economy.
My other plan to help our area has been before the General Assembly before. In fact, this year’s legislation was on track to become law last year, but a delay by Senate leaders kept it from making it to the governor’s desk.
The pilot program that Governor Beshear has authorized in the meantime has already proven to be successful; it has already helped more than 400 students pursue upper-level college courses, more than 90 of whom have already graduated.
Like the coal-scholarship program, other issues expected to come up this legislative session are familiar ones. That includes efforts to restore voting rights to most felons after they have completed their sentence; giving voters a chance to consider constitutional amendments on expanding gaming and a local-option sales tax to fund community projects; and increasing the age and height requirements for child booster seats.
Another priority of many this legislative session is making it possible for domestic-violence victims in dating situations to obtain a domestic violence order, or DVO. Kentucky is one of the last states, if not the last, to make this available to this group of victims.
Under current law, DVOs can only be obtained by victims who either have married or lived with the alleged abuser or have a child in common. The bill to add dating couples to that list should be one of the first to make it out of the full House.
Outside of the legislative process, Kentucky got some good news last week. First, I was proud to join with Governor and First Lady Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway to announce more than $30 million in court settlements between the state and two large pharmaceutical companies.
This money will be used to improve Kentucky’s drug treatment programs, with juveniles getting the most assistance. Our state’s prescription-drug program, KASPER, will get $6 million for updates, which will help better implement my 2012 legislation to combat this type of drug abuse.
The other good news came when the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety reported that the number of highway fatalities in 2013 was the state’s lowest total in 64 years. While there is always room for improvement, I am proud that what we are doing to make our roads safer is paying off.
With plenty of bills to consider, this legislative session promises to be a busy time, and your input is especially crucial. If you have any thoughts or questions, don’t hesitate to let me know. You can always send me an email at Greg.Stumbo@lrc.ky.gov or leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.