A legislative perspective
Rep. Greg Stumbo Speaker of the House
When it comes to moving legislation through the General Assembly, it helps to have a lot of patience, because it can take more than one try before an innovative idea becomes law.
I have seen that happen often over the years, but with persistence and education, the good ideas eventually clear all of the hurdles.
That’s the path I am hoping two of my bills take this year. The first of those – helping college students in coal regions complete their four-year degree close to home – is well-known in our community, while the second would allow Kentucky to reap potentially millions of dollars lost to fraud.
House Bill 2, as you may recall, can trace its roots to 2012, when I fought to bring the University of Pikeville into the state’s postsecondary system. This move, which I still strongly support, would give us a much-needed public university in the mountains, while the cost would be small when compared to the long-lasting benefits we would see.
Shortly after that legislative session, Governor Beshear showed his support for boosting the number of four-year college degrees here in our region when he authorized a pilot program that uses coal-severance tax dollars to help our students afford to continue their education.
Last year, I worked with state Rep. Leslie Combs to make this program permanent, but the idea died when Senate leaders sent the proposal back too late for the House to act. That late-night maneuver remains one of the most disappointing actions I have ever seen in the Capitol.
Nevertheless, Rep. Combs and I are trying again, and our legislation cleared a major hurdle early last week when the House voted for it unanimously.
Nearly 100 students have already received their bachelor’s degree with help from this program, and several hundred others are in the process. The governor’s budget calls for an increase in coal-severance money so the program can reach out to even more.
To qualify, students living in one of Kentucky’s 34 coal-producing counties will need to have at least 60 credit hours and be enrolled at least half-time in upper-level courses at a qualifying postsecondary school that is either based in a coal county or has a satellite campus there.
The most a student could receive a year is $6,800 to attend a non-profit, independent four-year college like UPike and $2,300 to attend a satellite campus of a public four-year university or a regional postsecondary center like ours. There also would be grant money available if the student’s degree program is not available locally.
While that bill is now in the Senate, the other legislation I mentioned is just starting out, although the House has supported it in the past.
In short, House Bill 335 would include Kentucky among the two dozen other states and the federal government that have a false claims act. If this becomes law, whistleblowers would have a much greater incentive to report fraud, because they would be eligible for a portion of any fine levied.
That’s no small amount, either. Over the last quarter-century, these fines have topped $50 billion.
The early history of this program can be traced back to President Lincoln, who saw the value of having many more eyes looking out for fraud.
Under the legislation, those found guilty would be liable for up to three times the amount they had fraudulently billed the state, and whistleblowers would be eligible to receive anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of the monies recovered as a reward for their service. Other civil penalties and attorney fees would be an additional cost for those found guilty.
This bill will be heard in committee soon, and I am confident it will past the House again. In today’s tight economic times, it should fare much better in the Senate, since budget officials say this could help the state reap up to $25 million a year.
As we wait to see what happens, it is worth noting that this week marks the halfway point of the legislative session, meaning we only have about 30 days remaining. With the budget and many other issues like these still unresolved, a lot of work remains.
There is still plenty of time to let me know your thoughts or concerns about any legislation, however. You can always email me at Greg.Stumbo@lrc.ky.gov or leave a message for me or any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.
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