For decades now, early January in odd-numbered years has been set aside to give the General Assembly time to elect House and Senate leaders and determine the make-up of the chambers’ committees for the next two years.
That tradition didn’t change when voters approved annual sessions in 2000. Instead, these four days were incorporated as part of the odd-year session’s 30 working days, although this period remains distinct because legislation is normally not debated. That won’t begin until my colleagues and I return to the Capitol in early February.
For now, I’m proud to say that I will have another opportunity to serve as House speaker in what will is my third term in that position. It really means a lot to have the support of the chamber and your support here at home.
While the House was focused on organizational matters last week, we are starting to see a list of priorities come together. That includes such major issues as tax and public pension reform, both of which were the subject of separate task forces last year, and tweaking my legislation that has already played a major role in limiting prescription drug abuse.
In the House, another significant initiative I am pushing will be increasing the transparency and accountability of our local special taxing districts, which range from library, health and airport boards to many of our public utilities. Our goal here is not to change how these entities are operated, but to ensure that the public can better track this form of spending, which the state auditor’s office found to be more than $2 billion a year. Too often, the numerous laws governing these districts can be confusing for citizens wanting to know more about how their money is being spent.
Although the House will not consider Senate legislation until later in the session, there already appears to be a strong consensus behind one of that chamber’s top priorities. Its members are working with Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes to make it much easier for our men and women in the military to vote on time in all elections. The current deadlines can be tough for some, especially those based overseas.
On Thursday, bipartisan support was clearly evident in another area: Giving most of our public four-year universities the authority to use $363 million of their own money to build some much-needed projects on their campuses. Other House and Senate leaders and I and numerous legislators from both parties joined with Governor Beshear and the college presidents as a show of support.
Once approved, these projects, which range from new resident hall and academic space to a major upgrade of Commonwealth Stadium at the University of Kentucky, will not require any state tax dollars or new student fees. In fact, in what is believed to be a first for Kentucky, the athletic department at UK is giving a significant portion of money to the construction of an academic building at the school.
That wasn’t the only good news to come out of the Capitol on Thursday. We also learned that Kentucky has moved up to 10th among the states in Education Week’s annual rankings that track academic progress and other key indicators in our elementary and secondary schools. That’s up from 14th last year and 34th the year before.
In the subcategories, Kentucky got its best marks in the high standards we have set for our children; the quality of our teachers; and the classroom achievement we have seen from kindergarten through high school. If our economy continues to improve and we can boost education funding, our ranking should go even higher in the years ahead.
The final piece of good news came from the Office of State Budget Director, which reported that revenues through December – the halfway point of the fiscal year – were up 3.8 percent when compared to the same period in 2011. That’s well ahead of the 2.4 percent growth that the state’s budget was based on. Barring something unforeseen, that means we should end the fiscal year with at least some money left over.
As I mentioned, the General Assembly will not return until early February, but that does not mean you cannot let me know your thoughts or concerns about the state in the meantime. You can leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For the deaf or hard of hearing, the number is 800-896-0305. To learn more online, please visit www.lrc.ky.gov.